Why we make the Sign of the Cross

Why we make the Sign of the Cross

Cedric Wright

Known as the Trinitarian Formula,"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" is a familiar and beautiful sequence of words and a powerful and significant feature of all Catholic worship. It is used by the priest at the start and end of Holy Mass, as well as in the preliminary prayers before the Consecration, and we bow our heads and repeat the gesture when the priest gives us the formal Blessing at the end of Mass.

It is used at baptism, confirmation, marriage, all manner of consecration and blessing, and at the end of our lives, graces the valediction of burial. It also begins and ends the Holy Rosary prayers.

The Cross itself features strongly in Catholic liturgy.

Older Catholics will have nostalgic memories of that beautiful ceremony, the Way (Stations) of the Cross – our commemoration, together with Mary, of Our Lord's suffering and death, which used to be a feature of Friday worship (particularly on Good Friday) but which in recent times appears to have fallen into disuse, except on Good Friday.

But the fourteen Stations – either as sculptures or paintings – are retained in our churches, and the Cross remains the central feature of worship when we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September each year.

The Sign of the Cross comes as naturally to Catholics as breathing. We make it at the start and finish of morning and evening prayers, as the introduction and finish of Grace at mealtimes, at times of crisis, or fear, or profound religious experiences. It is the most-used Sacramental, an instinctive and vital element of our Catholic Faith.

Dignified act

Invoking (as it does) the Holy Trinity, making the Sign of the Cross (also known as "blessing oneself") should always be a solemn and dignified act, directed at Heaven.

Sometimes we see athletes, or sportsmen, or people in awe or distress, doing a quick "flip-flip" of their right hand in front of their face, showing their faith in public.

It is a mini-prayer in itself, dedicating ourselves to the Holy Trinity, so it should always be done slowly and deliberately, with the reverence it deserves. "In the name of the Father (touch forehead) and of the Son (touch abdomen) and of the Holy (touch left shoulder) Spirit (touch right shoulder) Amen." (Touch breast).

As with any prayer, it should never become mechanical – it is important to make it a sincere gesture of love and supplication to God.

Through the centuries, there have been various traditions dictating how to hold the hand during this ritual – with two fingers extended, or three, and so on. In the Orthodox tradition, most believers bless themselves with the first two fingers and thumb of the right hand touching.

But the accepted form in the Catholic Church today is to use the complete hand, with fingers extended, and touching with the fingertips. In extending a blessing, the priest will sometimes use the three central fingers – symbolising the Holy Trinity – with the thumb and little finger folded.

How it started

The Cross is the most recognised symbol in the world, and is the universal emblem of Christianity. Simple, distinctive and elegant, it is also one of the most popular of personal ornaments, being worn as a pendant, earrings or brooches by millions of women – very often as much for its charm and status as for its religious significance. For Catholics, it is given greater meaning when the suffering figure of Jesus is included, making it a Crucifix.

From day one, it was used by the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as its "logo", though at times of persecution it was replaced by the enigmatic fish – the Sign of the Fisherman (Saint Peter). (As a matter of interest, a simplistic fish symbol is still used to distinguish Catholic churches in some countries – I have seen it in Germany).

The earliest recorded use of the Sign of the Cross dates from about a century after Christ's Ascension, when it was used with the bent thumb to sign the forehead initially, and later the lips and heart in the same way that we use it today in the Mass before the Gospel reading.

But from the beginning, Catholics have regarded the Cross of Christ as the source of all blessings, which can only come from God.

So when a priest gives us his blessing, or blesses any object, he is an instrument of God's power, and when we bless ourselves, it is a beautiful supplication to God for His Blessing.

So this holy sign soon came into use in the Church for blessing people or objects with references in writings from about AD400 of the giving of physical blessings.

From this developed the custom of the one being blessed making the Sign of the Cross as the blessing was received. It was a natural development from there for one offering prayer or supplication to the Almighty to start by making the Sign of the Cross – something which became universal in the Middle Ages.

Priestly privilege

Only an ordained priest of the Catholic Church can give a blessing in the Name of the Holy Trinity, it being one of the powers conferred on his Apostles and disciples by Our Lord. It is very important to ask a priest to bless holy objects such as crucifixes, medals and scapulars to give them their full effect. The priest's blessing carries the power conferred by Jesus Himself.

When a bishop blesses a crowd, it is customary for him to make the Sign of the Cross in three directions, to represent the Holy Trinity.

Protestants as a rule do not use the Sign of the Cross, which was abandoned by the Reformers as being "Papist" and mere superstition.

But there are modern Protestant preachers – notably Lutheran and High Anglican – who appreciate its importance and use it in their liturgies.

The Church decrees that individuals may use the Sign of the Cross devoutly at any time. It can even be used beneficially on its own as a sign of love for, and devotion to, the Holy Trinity.

There is also a tradition deriving from the pre-Christian era, and still observed in some Latin countries, of a father giving a blessing to his children on special occasions, though this is more a sign of parental love and trust than a formal benediction.

There is a beautiful and ancient Irish custom to make the Sign of the Cross when walking or driving past a Catholic Church as a gesture of love and reverence for Our Lord, always present in the Tabernacle.

In our homes, we should always use Holy Water when asking a personal blessing from the Holy Trinity as the special power of Holy Water makes the sacramental more effective. For this purpose, little Holy Water fonts should be mounted at the entrance to the home, and in the bedroom. (Custom-made fonts are available in Church bookshops).

We should honour and love the Sign of the Cross and use it frequently and devoutly. Young children quickly learn to bless themselves and should be taught the significance of this beautiful mini-prayer and to use it throughout their lives. Used properly, it is inspiring and can even be a signpost to Heaven.

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