One of the most common, least-thought-about
signs among Catholics is the Sign of the Cross. There’s nothing
wrong with that. In fact, it’s good to have such a constant
sign that draws little attention. When we stop to consider
it, though, the Sign of the Cross speaks to each of us, depending
upon the time and upon our own disposition.
We sign ourselves with the cross before and after
morning or evening prayers, certainly before and after grace
at meals, at the start of any public prayer service, including
the Eucharist or any other sacrament, and at any time we enter
into private or public prayer during the day.
When I was young, I was taught to make the Sign
of the Cross when passing a Catholic church, and in the presence
of the dead at a graveside. Sometimes we make the Sign of
the Cross as a reminder of God’s protection, or maybe even
as a request for it, when we sense the presence of some sudden
fear or danger.
In short, the Sign of the Cross can be like a
background tapestry for Christians. It’s a constant reminder
of the key to our faith—the nature of God—and itself is a
kind of key. By making the sign, we enter into a sacred space.
More than anything, the Sign of the Cross
is a sign. It is a corporal sign, that is, a sign of the body.
Catholic Christians believe that our salvation, through Christ,
is a bodily event. Christ was born into this world; he walked
on this earth preaching to people to do justice here and now.
Christ, God incarnate, was crucified. And it was Christ, in
a body transformed, who rose from the dead.
We are each born into this world as bodily persons,
and it is here and now, in the flesh, that we unite ourselves
to Christ. Because Christ was born in the flesh, in fact,
we are able to unite ourselves with God in all of creation.
When we make the Sign of the Cross, we are making
a sign of the human person and a sign of the divine. Isn’t
that who Christ is? The shape of the crucifix itself, a torture
device designed to hang and kill human bodies, is like a human
with arms outstretched. When we make this sign, horrible as
it is in truth, we are mimicking the shape of our very selves.
Limited and dying, we are also ultimately free and full of
life if we choose life with God.
The Sign of the Cross is a scandal to the ways
of the world, because in it we acknowledge that, in a disgraceful,
powerless, unjust death, we are able to find life. We acknowledge
the mystery of the Incarnation, that, as St. Paul says, “My
grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in
weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
But what of the sign itself? When we make
the Sign of the Cross, we name who God is, and we say we live
our lives in God’s name. We make the sign from left to right
as Roman Catholics, from right to left in other Churches,
but are saying the same thing: Our God is Father, Son and
Holy Spirit, three in one, and we do what we do in God’s name:
In the name of the Father... Son...Holy Spirit.
In the early years after the Church emerged from
Roman persecution, there was immense debate about the nature
of God. The Sign of the Cross is our constant acknowledgment
and reminder that we talk about God as Three in One, as the
Holy Trinity, because that’s how Jesus taught us to think
of God. He constantly prayed intimately to his heavenly Father,
and the Gospels go on to reveal that Jesus himself was God’s
only son who breathed out the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). That
Spirit is the fruit of the love between God the Father and
God the Son.
We know that we are truly speaking of God when
we speak of Father, Son or Holy Spirit, but that God is present
in more than one way. Indeed, the Sign of the Cross is an
entry point for an entire meditation on the mystery of God.
Who is the Father? the Son? the Holy Spirit? How does God
work in each of our lives?
We say Amen, “So be it,” affirming our connection
to the cross. It tells us who God is and who we are. That
was what St. Francis prayed before the crucifix. Who am I?
Who is God? Our Sign of the Cross reminds us to ask.
Next month: The Hail Mary