On the Sign of the Cross
Deut.4:32-34, 39-40; Rom.8:14-17; Mt.28:16-20
Today, on Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the mystery of our Triune God, a mystery that no-one in this life has ever really understood.
For how can one God include three Divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Yet Scripture often refers to God’s Trinitarian presence: the merciful Father who loved us into creation, the loving Son who sacrificed everything for us, and the Holy Spirit who fills us with so much life and hope. Our finite brains struggle to grasp this sublime truth, but in our hearts we accept it because it’s fundamental to our Christian faith.
Indeed, the Trinity is so fundamental to our beliefs that it’s embedded in our most ancient gesture of prayer: The Sign of the Cross. We do this so often, however, that we sometimes forget its significance.
Every time we make the Sign of the Cross, we invoke the mystery of the Holy Trinity. With our right hand, we touch our forehead, breast and left and right shoulders, and say ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, using the words Jesus himself gave us just before he ascended to heaven (Mt.28:19).
The Sign of the Cross is as old as the Church itself. The earliest Christians often used to trace a Cross (meaning Redemption) with three fingers (the Trinity) on their foreheads. [i]
In 201AD, Tertullian wrote, ‘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 (we do) we mark our foreheads with the sign of the Cross’. [ii]
Later, Christians added the words ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’, and they extended this sign to other parts of the body. So now, for example, we also sign our forehead, lips and heart when the Gospel is read.
There are many ways to interpret the Sign of the Cross.
Every time we sign ourselves, we publicly affirm our Baptism and we ask God to renew our baptismal graces. At the same time, we also affirm our discipleship, and remember our responsibility to get to know God (pointing to our head), to love him (heart) and to serve him all through our days (shoulders).
But it also summarises the Apostles’ Creed. When we touch our forehead, breast and shoulders, we declare that we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; we say that we believe in God’s Creation and his redemption of humanity from sin and death; and we recognise the Cross as the central event of our Christian faith.
As well, an open hand is a sign of blessing, so every time we trace the shape of the Cross on ourselves, we’re asking God to bless our minds, our hearts and our bodies – our thoughts, our passions and our actions.
And as our hand moves down from our head to our heart, we’re reminded that Christ descended from heaven to earth. And as our hand travels from our left to right shoulder, we remember that Jesus crossed from death to life, and we’re all invited to do the same.
Indeed, the five fingers of the hand we use represent the five wounds of Christ.
By definition, the Sign of the Cross is a ‘sacramental’, a sacred sign that unites us with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In that moment it serves as a prayer, a collect, that silently gathers up all our hopes and fears and gives them to God. It also sanctifies that particular moment or circumstance and prepares us to receive God’s grace. [iii]
The beauty of the Sign of the Cross is that it’s both quick and deeply meaningful. The sad thing is that many people don’t recognise its importance.
In Ancient Greek, the word ‘sphragis’ means sign and mark of ownership. Roman generals used to tattoo their initials on their soldiers’ forearms, just as shepherds brand their sheep.
In the same way, the Sign of the Cross publicly marks us as belonging to Christ, the true Shepherd. [iv]
So, whenever you feel drawn towards Jesus, make a good Sign of the Cross. Whenever you’re anxious, struggling or in danger, make a good Sign of the Cross. And whenever you’re filled with gratitude or joy, make a good Sign of the Cross, for it’s a deeply meaningful prayer.
And remember this: the Sign of the Cross reminds us to think beyond ourselves.
As Ronald Knox once said, in the Sign of
the Cross the first two gestures form the letter ‘I’, and the second two cross
it out. [v]
[i] Ann Ball, The How-To Book of Sacramentals. Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN, 2005:33-34.
[ii] Tertullian, de Corona. Ch.3:165. http://www.tertullian.org/lfc/LFC10-11_de_corona.htm
[iii] Ann Ball, Op cit. pp.11-13.
[iv] Bert Ghezzi, The Sign of the Cross. Loyola Press, Chicago. 2004:60.