The word “Christian” describes many denominations throughout the world. Christians divide into Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic, but even within these faiths one finds many facets. Stemming from the historic religious and political schism between the Roman Empire between Rome and Byzantium, Catholics identify either as followers of the Roman or Latin Rite, or as adherents to the Eastern Rite (not to be confused with Eastern Orthodox). Though their fundamental beliefs do not differ, many of their practices do.
The Sign of the Cross
The sign of the cross represents an important tradition for all Catholics, a gesture that sketches the shape of the cross Jesus bore and upon which he was crucified on your own body. To make the sign of the cross in both the Latin Rite and Eastern Rite, use your right hand to touch first the forehead, then the chest, abdomen, or navel, next one shoulder, and finally the other shoulder, while intoning the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. Often the blessing concludes with the traditional “Amen.” Instructions differ in Eastern Rite and Latin Rite Catholicism.
The Latin Rite
The majority of Catholics worldwide -- especially in Western culture -- subscribe to the Latin Rite. Latin Rite Catholics touch first their left shoulder and then their right while naming the Holy Spirit. Both Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics use the right hand, but in the Latin Rite the hand is not held in any special or specific way. A fist, an open palm, or anything else is technically acceptable. Generally, most forms of Western Christianity, including Protestants faiths that incorporate the sign of the cross, follow the Latin Rite.
Sequence in the Eastern Rite
In the Eastern tradition, the faithful make the sign of the cross differently and far more frequently than do those who follow the Roman Rite. Some describe the Catholic Eastern Rite for the sign of the cross, also known as the Byzantine sign of the cross, as “backward” from the Latin Rite. Eastern Rite Catholics touch first their right shoulder and then their left during the blessing. This “backward” sequence actually follows the original, more ancient order of the tradition, common for practice in the Latin Rite as recently as the 16th century. Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross the same way as do Eastern Rite Catholics.
Fingers in the Eastern Rite
Eastern Rite congregations adhere to a specified hand position for this rite, as well. Eastern Rite Catholics see the hand posture with a special significance, and the finger positions hold symbolic value. In the Eastern Rite, the thumb, pointer and middle fingers extend together, almost as if they held an invisible pencil. These first three fingers represent the Holy Trinity: God the Father; Jesus Christ, the Son; and finally the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity describes the three aspects of the Lord, which constitute a single divine essence. The ring finger and little finger point down, touching the palm in a gesture like half of a fist. These two fingers represent the dual nature of Christ, believed to exist as simultaneously divine and human.
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images