Origin and Meaning of the Hand of Christ Blessing
In ancient Greece and Rome, there was a well-established system of hand-gestures used in oratory and rhetoric. Some of the oldest surviving Orthodox icons are found in Rome, and so it is believed that the first Orthodox iconographers may have co-opted these hand gestures when depicting Christ, His saints, and the Angels. For example, in icons of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel is shown with hand raised in the way which in the ancient world signified the beginning of an important oration. In fact this can be seen in the oldest surviving Annunciation icon, as Gabriel proclaims the important news to the Virgin Mary.
This oratory meaning is probably the original “source” of showing Christ raising His hand, as more than anyone else He has something important to say. However, to any Orthodox Christian, Jesus’ right hand in icons is unmistakably shown as being raised to give a blessing. The arrangement of the hand is repeated by clergy when blessing others and so the saints in icons, if they were clergy, often hold their right hand in the same way. This has a symbolism all of its own which has developed over time, and is worth investigating.
Symbolism of the Blessing
The fingers spell out “IC XC”, a widely used four letter abbreviation of the Greek for Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC). It is by the name of Jesus that we are saved and receive blessings: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;” (Phil 2:10).
The three fingers of Christ – as well as spelling out “I” and “X” – confess the Tri-unity of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The touching finger and thumb of Jesus not only spell out “C”, but attest to the Incarnation: to the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ.