Monday, February 27, 2012

40 Things #5: The Sign of the Cross

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***  

You've probably seen Troy Polamalu do it before each and every play.  But did you know that the origins of the sign of the cross date back at least to 200 AD, and possibly to the time of the Apostles?

Not me! :)
As a child, I mostly thought of the sign of the cross -- whereby one crosses oneself by placing the hand on the head, lower chest, and each shoulder while reciting the Trinitarian formula, "In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit" -- as a sort of "bookend" system for prayer.  A way to let God know you were starting and ending.  (In that vein, it's also helpful when you're praying in a group, as a definitive way to let everybody know you're starting!)
In my family, we would make the sign of the cross when passing a Catholic church, as a prayer and gesture of reverence for the Holy Eucharist inside.  My mom also taught us to cross ourselves whenever we passed an emergency vehicle (with its siren on) to pray for the people in trouble.

As I grew up, I grew to cherish the sign of the cross, because I saw it as a very beautiful Catholic ritual (there are some other faiths which use it, most prominently the Orthodox, and certain mainline Protestant denominations).  I learned to use it on its own not only when passing a church or ambulance, but anytime I wanted to pray a quick prayer.  Now, I always make the sign of the cross after I lay Elise in her crib at night, and I pray that she sleeps well.

I recently read an article (based on a book by Bert Ghezzi) about the six meanings of the sign of the cross, which I found fascinating and affirming:

1. Confession of Faith: In Scripture, praying in someone's name means you are declaring and entering into their presence.  The sign of the cross professes belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

2. Renewal of Baptism: The sign of the cross is used in the sacrament of Baptism links us to the Body of Christ.  Making the sign of the cross is a reminder of this.

3. A Mark of Discipleship: The Church Fathers referred to the sign of the cross using a Greek word that was the same word which a shepherd puts on a sheep or a general on a soldier.  The sign of the cross signifies that we belong to Christ.

4. Acceptance of Suffering: In declaring that we belong to Christ, we acknowledge that He became man and suffered for us, and we share in His suffering.  Even when we "feel" like God isn't there during times of trial, making the sign of the cross acknowledges and declares His presence.

5. Defense Against the Devil: The Church Fathers urged us to use the sign of the cross as a defense against the devil.  Reciting it is a way of saying, "Back off; I belong to God."

6. Victory Over Self-Indulgence: I think this one is related to #5 -- the Church Fathers encouraged Christians to make the sign of the cross when tempted (with anger, lust, etc.) to help dispel the temptation.

I give a hearty "yea!" to all of those!  And I love that I can do every one with this simple yet powerful gesture and prayer.


  1. I grew up in a family where the sign of the cross was only ever done at dinner prayer (and at church, of course) and never anywhere else... including dinners out, dinners with extended family, etc. It's really just been in the last 3 months or so that my fiance and I have begun to do it more in public and it has taken some getting used to, but I have really felt blessed using it more and more in our daily lives.

    This post was definitely some good info that I'll pass along to my fiance (who is in RCIA) so thank you!

  2. Stacy, I still have a hard time making the sign of the cross in public. I'm trying to be more courageous now, especially now that I've realized how beautiful and meaningful it is. Last week I made it in front of my husband's family (non-Catholic) for the first time when we said grace -- I think they were pretty surprised! :)