Browsing Why We Do What We Do

The Sign of the Cross

By: Pamela Folse

The first prayer that most of us learned as children was the Sign of the Cross. I remember kneeling beside the bed with my mom and we would practice the gesture over and over while reciting “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The actual movement was a little awkward for me since I was left handed and my mom insisted that I make the Sign of the Cross with my right hand.

We make the Sign of the Cross haphazardly these days without thinking of the beauty of the gesture and what it represents. The action reminds us of the cross of salvation, while the words invoke the Holy Trinity. Technically, the Sign of the Cross, like the rosary, holy water, blessed oil and candles, is a sacramental, a sacred sign instituted by the Church, which prepares us to receive grace, or makes holy a moment.

Since the earliest times of the Church, the Sign of the Cross has been used to begin and end prayer and the Mass. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who died in 386, said this in his catechetical lectures: “Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest.”

Gradually, the Sign of the Cross was used at different times of the Mass, such as when Father implores the Holy Spirit to turn mere bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. A different form of the Sign of the Cross is done before the reading of the Gospel, when crosses are traced on the forehead, the lips and the heart as we pray, “Lord, may your words be in my thoughts, in my words and in my actions.”

While the action of the gesture has changed over the years, the Church teaches us to use three fingers, a sign of the Trinity, the thumb, index and middle finger gathered together as one to make the Sign of the Cross. As you pray “In the name of the Father” (touch your fingers to your forehead) “and of the Son” (touch your fingers to your chest) “and of the Holy Spirit” (touch your left shoulder first and then your right). “Amen” (put your right and left hand together. While making the gesture you may want to recall that Jesus descended from heaven (forehead) to earth (chest) and from agony (left) to glory (right).

Sometimes Catholics make the Sign of the Cross at other times, too. Many Catholics cross themselves when passing by a Catholic church or chapel where the Eucharist is present. Some may make the Sign of the Cross when driving past a cemetery as a quick prayer for the dead buried there. Sometimes Catholics make the Sign of the Cross when receiving bad news, when hearing sirens, or when a funeral procession goes by, as a way of praying for all those involved.

Devout of other cultures have their own ways of making the Sign of the Cross. No matter how we perform the gesture, let us do so with purpose, consciously and devoutly. The cross is a sign of our salvation and the Holy Trinity is a central dogma of our faith. This simple, yet profound act reminds us of the great love that God had for each one of us.

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