Considering the Sign of the Cross

January 9, 2018

Editor’s Note: Michael Phillips marked the one-year anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism and the receipt of the Eucharist on Jan. 8. Recently, he shared his perspective on making the Sign of the Cross:

Jan. 8, 2017 is a day I won’t forget, not just because Daniel Cardinal DiNardo was the celebrant, not just because a good friend, Father Salvatore DeGeorge, was my spiritual adviser, not even because his brother, Joe, was my sponsor.

No, to me the high point was that for the first time after the Eucharist, I made the Sign of the Cross. First time ever as a Catholic. And because it meant so much to me, I began to take note how we Catholics make the Sign of the Cross.

My study served as a dramatic reminder that over the centuries millions of people have died, been jailed, tortured, persecuted, martyred or socially ostracized for this simple gesture. Maybe it’s because, as John Vianney once said, “a genuinely made Sign of the Cross makes all hell tremble.”

A sincerely made Sign of the Cross is a prayer, a blessing and a sacramental, but I like to think it is a form of preaching, too. Because people watch. Ever notice that? Made at mealtime, for example, in public it sometimes changes the tone of the conversation for the better. Others who you don’t even know see you and they, too, form an opinion. Sometimes children ask questions. Good can come from this simple, ancient ritual. But, we’ve gotten sloppy haven’t we?

I have come to call it “swatting flies.” It starts with an absent minded “Oh yeah, I almost forgot” and proceeds with a quick bam-bam-bam touching of the forehead, then the area generally near the heart and finally a quick swipe at the two shoulders. It’s over before it hardly begins. Too bad.

The Sign of the Cross is a symbol representing Christ’s victory over sin and death. In the early Church it was made with the right hand thumb over the forehead only. In the year 200, Tertullian in Carthage noted, “We Christians wear out our forehead with the sign of the Cross.”

By the Fourth Century the Sign of the Cross involved other parts of the body. Each movement is significant and is part of the prayer. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) explained, “The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity... from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth...”

Each step counts, folks. But if today in our fast-paced society the sequence of the Cross (now left to right) is frequently accelerated, it pales in comparison to the accompanying Trinitarian formula. “In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen” often becomes “innerfathsonenoilyspit, men.”

Sound familiar? Thought so.

How about a New Year’s resolution? Let’s start a movement. Right here in your Church, your parish, your town, your state. Let’s just stop swatting flies. Let’s slow down when we say this important prayer. Let’s let the motion and the words frame, divide and reinforce the special but short moment. You’re witnessing. You’re preaching. Make it count!

Pope Francis on the Sign of the Cross

(VIS) — “Making the sign of the Cross” in a distracted way, and showing off “the symbol of Christians” as if it were “the emblem of a football team” or an “ornament,” with precious stones and gold, has nothing to do with the “mystery” of Christ. Pope Francis said in an April 2017 homily. The pontiff called for an examination of conscience to consider precisely the Cross, to reflect on the way that each of us brings the only “instrument of Salvation” into our daily lives.

“But what is the Cross for us?” the pontiff asked. “It is the sign of Christians; it is the symbol of Christians, and we make the sign of the Cross, but we do not always do so correctly. Sometimes we do it like this...” the pope gestured quickly, “because we do not have faith in the Cross,” the pope said.

“Today, the Church suggests a dialogue with this mystery of the Cross, with this God who made himself to be sin, out of love for me. Each one of us can say, ‘out of love for me,’” the pontiff continued, adding that we should ask ourselves the following questions: “How do I carry the Cross? — as a reminder? When I make the sign of the Cross, am I aware of what I am doing? How do I wear the Cross? — only as a symbol of belonging to a religious group? How do I wear the Cross? — as an ornament, a piece of gold jewelry with many precious stones?” Or “have I learned to carry it on my shoulders, where it hurts?”