Recently, someone has asked about the practice of the Sign of the Cross. The questions were straightforward: how? why? when?
We can first begin simply by acknowledging that “manual acts” (sign of the cross, hand-raising, bowing, genuflecting etc) are ways in which we engage our whole person in worship. During Eucharist, we pray this: “And here we offer and present to you, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice;…”
Worship is meant to engage our bodies and all the senses.
Specifically concerning the sign of the cross, we can also acknowledge that it has been common practice among the Church since the early days. The amazing thing about Global Christianity is that we could go anywhere in the world, during any century, and the faith, practice, and worship would be very similar.
So, why do we make the sign of the Cross?
There’s a great (brief) article that can more fully answer this question (you can read it here: http://catholicexchange.com/21-things-cross), but here are a couple highlights:
· Open ourselves to the Grace of God
· Affirm our Trinitarian Faith
· Recall the Incarnation of Jesus; Remember the Passion of Christ
· Reaffirm our baptism
· Crucify ourselves with Christ
· Mark ourselves for Christ
· Witness to others
And, how do you make the sign of the Cross?
There are a variety of ways, but in the West, the most common would be beginning with the forehead (signifying both that the Father is fount of the Godhead, and that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds), down to chest (showing that Jesus descended from Heaven to Earth as the beginning of the New Covenant of Grace), and then moving from the left shoulder to the right (a reversal of the Fall, from the left side of the curse to the right side of blessing; as well as our passage from present misery to future glory in Christ).
There are several different ways of positioning our fingers: with two fingers together it shows the dual nature of Christ (humanity and divinity). Bonus for the Eastern tradition of using the thumb with the pointer and middle finger representing The Trinity, with ring finger and pinky representing the dual nature of Christ.
Finally, when do you make the sign of the Cross?
In our personal, every-day life I would say early and often. When waking up, before and/or after prayer, when leaving the home, throughout the day, and before going to bed.
In worship, here are some common practices:
· When entering the nave with holy water from the baptismal font – reaffirming our baptismal vows.
· When the Trinitarian formula is used (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This can be the sign of a cross or a profound bow (more than just a head nod). The first time in worship is when we begin: “Blessed be God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.
Usually, the next time this is used is the beginning of the sermon – a message in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
· When receiving God’s forgiveness (after the General Confession), and receiving God’s blessing (at the end, right before the dismissal).
· During the Eucharist Prayers:
i. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (that’s Jesus)
ii. When the priest elevates the consecrated bread and wine (that’s the Body and Blood of Jesus)
iii. When the priest says, “…we may be filled with your grace and heavenly benediction…” (open ourselves to grace and blessing)
iv. The Great Invitation – when the priest shows the Body and Blood and says, “The Gifts of God for the People of God”, or “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
In short, there are many (great) reasons why, a couple variations used, and several appropriate times during worship. May our practice of the sign of the Cross continued to be used for our greater knowledge and love of the Lord.
Fr. Mark Polley+