The sign of the cross permeates a Catholic’s prayer life, from the public prayer of the Mass to private prayer around the dining room table. The priest opens Mass by leading the congregation in the Sign of the Cross. At the end of the Mass, he blesses the people “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and they cross themselves as he blesses them. At home, when Catholics pray before meals, they usually open and close the prayer by making the sign of the cross. In Catholic schools, the prayers the school prays in common usually begin and end with the sign of the cross.
The sign of the cross often introduces and closes other prayers, but it is a prayer in itself and can also be prayed on its own. Sometimes Catholics make the sign of the cross, with or without words, at other times as well. Many Catholics will cross themselves when they pass by a Catholic church or chapel where the Eucharist is present. Some may make the sign as they drive past a cemetery as a quick prayer for the dead who are buried there. Sometimes Catholics may make a quick Sign of the Cross when receiving bad news, or when sirens pass, as a way of praying for those involved.
Praying the sign of the cross is so common that we often rush through it without thinking much about it. But the sign of the cross is an ancient tradition with deep theological meaning.
How to do the Sign of the Cross
From childhood, Catholics are taught to make the sign of the cross, saying:
“In the name of the Father, [while touching the right hand to the forehead]
and of the Son, [moving the hand to the chest]
and of the Holy Spirit. [touching one shoulder, then the other]
You’ve probably seen your Catholic friends do it or at least you’ve likely seen it on TV as it is often referenced.
The History of the Sign of the Cross
The first “sign of the cross” that early Christians made was tracing a small cross on their foreheads. Around the year 200, Tertullian, an early Christian theologian, wrote about this sign: “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.” By the fifth century, other Christian writers reveal that the sign of the cross was also being made on the lips and on the chest. Over time, Christians began making large crosses over their bodies as Catholics do today. It is unknown exactly when and how that developed, but the sign of the cross as we know it today is probably about 1000 years old.
The Theological Meaning of the Sign of the Cross
The sign of the cross, in words and in action, reminds us of the two central realities of our faith: who God is (the Trinity) and what God has done for us (the Cross). These are the core of why Catholics do the sign of the cross. Let’s examine these both in more detail.
When we pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we are invoking the Trinity. While many religions teach belief in God, Christianity is unique in its belief that the one God is a Trinity of Persons. This is a great mystery that not even the most intelligent theologian or the holiest saint could ever fully comprehend. We only know that God is a Trinity because God revealed this to us.
What we mean when we say that God is a Trinity is that there is one divine nature, one divine substance. A “substance” or “nature” is what something is. God, as a Trinity, exists in three Persons. A person is “who” someone is. In our experience, one human person each possesses one human nature. A husband and wife, no matter how closely united, are still two separate beings. In God, however, three Persons possess the same divine nature. If you were to ask each Person in the Trinity, “Who are you?” each person would answer something differently: “I am the Father;” “I am the Son;” “I am the Holy Spirit.” If you were to ask each Person, “What are you?” you would get the same answer from each Person: “I am God.”
The sign of the cross both reminds us of who God is and invites God into our prayer and into our lives.
While our words in the prayer of the sign of the cross are an invocation of the Trinity, the shape of the cross we make during this prayer are a reminder of the cross of Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross was the action by which he destroyed death, so the sign of the cross is a constant reminder of our salvation.
The Power of the Sign of the Cross
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians understood that the cross of Christ has great power. Even the sign of the cross is powerful because it is a reminder of the instrument Jesus used to defeat Satan. Tertullian (see above) recommended that the faithful mark themselves with the sign of the cross at all times because of its power in bringing Jesus’ sacrifice into their daily lives.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem expresses the power of the Cross very well:
Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. … It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils… for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. (Catechetical Lecture 13)
The sign of the cross is a powerful way of making us mindful of the Trinity and inviting God into our prayer and into our daily lives. It brings the power of Christ’s cross to us and can be a powerful help against temptation and an excellent way of reminding us of the great things Jesus has done for us. Pray the sign of the cross often and be mindful of what it means in the life of the Church and in your own life!
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