Sign of Victory...

The Sign of the Cross

It proclaims who we are and makes the powers of evil tremble


You can sometimes tell when a ballplayer is Catholic. He acts like the martyrs in the Roman arena.  When he steps up to the plate or the free-throw line, he does what they did in their darkest days of persecution. Many of his fellow Catholics throughout the world do the same at meals, at Mass, and before going to bed. Often automatically and without thinking, they link themselves to the life-giving sacrifice of Christ that won the victory over death. They make the sign of the cross.

Why do Catholics do this? Is it merely an outward gesture devoid of deeper meaning? Pope Paul VI urged us to explore the deeper meaning of both liturgical and private prayers and actions to keep from falling into “Christian phariseeism.” The sign of the cross is a good place to start such
an “exploration into deeper meaning.”

In the Western church since the fourth or fifth century, this prayer gesture has taken the form of a cross over the upper body from head to heart and from left shoulder to right, along with the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

A tattoo or brand mark on sheep, cattle, or human slaves in the ancient world identified the owner. The Greek word for such markings, sphragis, was the word used for the baptismal sign of the cross that demarcated the headship of Christ over the baptismal candidate. As soldiers were identified by the mark of their general, so Christians, as Christ-followers, wanted to be marked invisibly with the mark of Jesus their leader.

The sign of the cross was also a reminder of the criteria Jesus gave for discipleship: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow in my steps” (Mark 8:34). Denying oneself meant forfeiting self-ownership in surrender to ownership by Christ in life and in death (see Rom. 14:8).

Symbolically, a person would “take up his cross” by having the sign of the cross traced on his forehead, reminding him that his sufferings must be accepted in partnership with Jesus (see 1 Pet. 4:13; Phil. 3:10).

Also symbolized in the sign of the cross is the basic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which is formulated against the backdrop of a body action, itself symbolic of the doctrine of the redemption (see Col. 1:20; 2:14; Rom. 3:24-25). Implied too is the doctrine of the Incarnation, since only as man could Jesus die on the cross (see Hebrews 2:14).

Further suggested are the three theological virtues: a personal faith in the above doctrines, and especially in Jesus as redeemer; hope in our salvation by accepting his gift of redemption (see John 1:12); and charity or love in responding to Christ’s sacrificial love since, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends: (John 15:13).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the successor of St. James, urged the early Christians: “Let us make the sign of the cross on our foreheads with our fingers, in all circumstances: when we come in and when we go out; before we sleep and when we arise.

If made with holy water, the sign of the cross is a reminder of our water baptism and a recommitment to God in an abbreviated profession of faith. In fact, this practice itself stems from the ancient rite of baptism in which the candidate was sealed on the forehead with a small form of the sign of the cross to depict the entrance into union with Christ in his paschal mystery, by dying to self with the crucified Jesus and rising to new life with him (see Romans 8:11; 11:15; Ephesians 2:5).

In baptism, the sign of the cross seals our involvement in the new covenant and replaces the sealing rite of circumcision in the old covenant (see Rom. 4:11). Paul reminds us that we are consecrated to God by the cross rather than by the former Abrahamic rite of circumcision: “May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! Through it, the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. It means nothing whether one is circumcised or not....Henceforth I bear the marks (wounds,sealing signs) of Jesus in my body” (Gal. 6:14, 17).

The ancient “small form” of the sign of the cross, still used today in anointing, was made with the thumb and sometimes also with the fingers. Some ethnic groups today form a cross with the thumb and forefinger and kiss it reverently to open or close a period of prayer. The three small thumb crosses, on the forehead, lips, and heart, made by the priest and the congregation at the gospel proclamation in the mass depict a triple consecration: of the mind to understand the gospel message, of the lips to speak of it openly by evangelization, and of the heart to love and cherish
the gospel.

Besides self-administration as we use the sign today, it came to be administered by persons one to another, either as the small anointing form, or as a broad tracing motion, especially in priestly blessings. Many healings occurred with both forms, which made people aware that such human actions could serve as a means of God’s grace and power. The sign was soon recognized as a powerful protection against demonic forces, especially through its dramatic effect in exorcisms. The sign of the cross of Jesus, symbolic of the redemptive act, was seen as Satan’s nemesis (see Col. 2:15).

Parents were encouraged to bless their children after the fashion of the patriarchs but with the Christian symbol of the sign of the cross. Spouses also would bless each other with the sign. These were “invocative” blessings, petitioning for help or support...

Recent popes also have encouraged Christians to bless one another with the invocative blessing by the sign of the cross, especially when accompanied by the sprinkling with holy water as a token of baptismal renewal... As a youngster, I looked forward to each evening when my mother or father would bless us children by making the sign of the cross on our foreheads with holy water at bedtime.

In a world becoming daily more and more under the attack of the enemy, I think it would behoove us to avail ourselves more frequently of the devout use of the enemy’s enemy, the sign of the cross of Jesus. Because it portrays the crucified Christ (see Gal. 3:1), the sign of the cross causes hell to tremble in fear, and heaven to tremble with joy. When we come to realize that such power is at our fingertips, the act will never again be anything but a beautiful ritual without ritualism.

By Father John H. Hampsch, CMF, a well-known teacher and conference speaker based in Los Angeles.Originally published in New Covenant Magazine, P.O. Box 400, Steubenville, Ohio, 43952. Used with permission.

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