Catholics make the sign of the cross at Mass, before and after their prayers and devotions, or at other times in their daily lives. I was thinking recently that it seems to be a habit, which many people have developed, without much thought about why they are in fact making the sign of the cross. Then it dawned on me that I was one of those people. I realised that if I was asked to explain the meaning of the sign of the cross and its history, I would be unable to do so. To remedy my ignorance, I therefore decided to post something on my Blog about it.
Some Church Fathers have seen the Christian practice of making the sign of the cross in Sacred Scripture.
“And the Lord said to him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.”
Thau is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. St Jerome and many other biblical interpreters conclude that the “mark” was therefore the form of this Hebrew character, which is a cross. Anyone who was not marked with Thau (the cross) was, under the instruction of God, to be killed. Like the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites, during the first Passover, the cross, marked on the foreheads of the faithful, provided protection from the wrath of God and saved them from death.
So, as in the times of Ezekiel, when we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross, we are making a statement. We are saying that we are not part of the secular world. We are God’s faithful followers. We express a very specific desire to distinguish ourselves as God’s faithful and to live according to God’s holy will. In addition, by making the sign of the cross, we are specifically invoking God’s protection, just as they did in the time of Ezekiel.
The sign of the cross is also our acknowledgment that we do not dare approach God on our own merit. We are reminded that it is only through the love and mercy of God and his willingness to sacrifice his only Son, our Lord, on the cross, that we are able to approach God. We recognise that we have been redeemed by Jesus through the cross and are his adopted children. God is our Father. We belong to God is our statement as we trace that sign across our foreheads or bodies.
“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. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils: for He triumphed over them in it, having made a show of them openly; for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon.”
When we make the sign of the cross, we also say the words:
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
In doing so, we invoke the name of God and in the name of God; we specifically ask for his assistance with whatever we are about to do in that moment of the day. We acknowledge clearly that for us Christians, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
The name of Jesus is on a par with the holiness and power of God’s name. The name of Jesus is “a name which is above all names.” The name of Jesus is so powerful that it is capable of bringing everything, seen and unseen, into subjection. “That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.”
As an aside while on the topic of the name of our Lord Jesus: While I was growing up as an Anglican, I was taught to always bow my head slightly, even if I was kneeling, whenever I said or heard the name of Jesus spoken. Nothing dramatic. Just a slight tilting forward of the head, as I said or heard the name “Jesus”. In doing so, acknowledging that Jesus is God, his name his glorious and holy, and his name is oh so powerful. I still do so today, even through Mass. In fact, I even do it when I am reading quietly to myself in my study or in my bed. Whether I am reading the bible or a book. Is this just an Anglican practice I wonder? Have some other Catholics also been taught this?
In making the sign of the cross and invoking his presence with those words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, we offer whatever we are about to do – hear Mass, pray, drive, write an exam, send our children to school, visit a friend, study, read, cook, garden… – up to God, proclaiming that, what we are about to do, we do for God and for his glory, so that we may live in harmony with God. We specifically also ask God, through this sign of the cross and these words, for his divine help and protection. We remind ourselves also of the wonderful gift of his saving love that caused him to die on the cross for our sake.
In closing, I am always pleased to be able to point to evidence of Catholic practices in a period that is as close as possible to the time of Jesus. This is particularly for my protestant friends who often accuse us Catholics of dreaming up our own practices. The closer the practice is to the time of our Lord Jesus, hopefully the more authentic they may consider the practice.
Listen to these words of the Theologian Tertullian (c. AD 160 – 225):
“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 candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”
 Ezekiel 9: 4 (Douay-Rheims Version)
 Ibid 9: 4 – 7
 Exodus 12: 13
 Psalm 123: 8 (Douay-Rheims Version)
 Philippians 2: 9 (Douay-Rheims Version)
 Ibid 2: 10 – 11
 Tertullian, De Corona, no. 30
Other Source: Sri E, A biblical walk through the Mass