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Our Everyday Sign of Faith
By John Bookser Feister

Q U I C K S C A N

One of the most common, least-thought-about signs among Catholics is the Sign of the Cross. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s good to have such a constant sign that draws little attention. When we stop to consider it, though, the Sign of the Cross speaks to each of us, depending upon the time and upon our own disposition.

We sign ourselves with the cross before and after morning or evening prayers, certainly before and after grace at meals, at the start of any public prayer service, including the Eucharist or any other sacrament, and at any time we enter into private or public prayer during the day.

When I was young, I was taught to make the Sign of the Cross when passing a Catholic church, and in the presence of the dead at a graveside. Sometimes we make the Sign of the Cross as a reminder of God’s protection, or maybe even as a request for it, when we sense the presence of some sudden fear or danger.

In short, the Sign of the Cross can be like a background tapestry for Christians. It’s a constant reminder of the key to our faith—the nature of God—and itself is a kind of key. By making the sign, we enter into a sacred space.

More than anything, the Sign of the Cross is a sign. It is a corporal sign, that is, a sign of the body. Catholic Christians believe that our salvation, through Christ, is a bodily event. Christ was born into this world; he walked on this earth preaching to people to do justice here and now. Christ, God incarnate, was crucified. And it was Christ, in a body transformed, who rose from the dead.

We are each born into this world as bodily persons, and it is here and now, in the flesh, that we unite ourselves to Christ. Because Christ was born in the flesh, in fact, we are able to unite ourselves with God in all of creation.

When we make the Sign of the Cross, we are making a sign of the human person and a sign of the divine. Isn’t that who Christ is? The shape of the crucifix itself, a torture device designed to hang and kill human bodies, is like a human with arms outstretched. When we make this sign, horrible as it is in truth, we are mimicking the shape of our very selves. Limited and dying, we are also ultimately free and full of life if we choose life with God.

The Sign of the Cross is a scandal to the ways of the world, because in it we acknowledge that, in a disgraceful, powerless, unjust death, we are able to find life. We acknowledge the mystery of the Incarnation, that, as St. Paul says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

But what of the sign itself? When we make the Sign of the Cross, we name who God is, and we say we live our lives in God’s name. We make the sign from left to right as Roman Catholics, from right to left in other Churches, but are saying the same thing: Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one, and we do what we do in God’s name: In the name of the Father... Son...Holy Spirit.

In the early years after the Church emerged from Roman persecution, there was immense debate  about the nature of God. The Sign of the Cross is our constant acknowledgment and reminder that we talk about God as Three in One, as the Holy Trinity, because that’s how Jesus taught us to think of God. He constantly prayed intimately to his heavenly Father, and the Gospels go on to reveal that Jesus himself was God’s only son who breathed out the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). That Spirit is the fruit of the love between God the Father and God the Son.

We know that we are truly speaking of God when we speak of Father, Son or Holy Spirit, but that God is present in more than one way. Indeed, the Sign of the Cross is an entry point for an entire meditation on the mystery of God. Who is the Father? the Son? the Holy Spirit? How does God work in each of our lives?

We say Amen, “So be it,” affirming our connection to the cross. It tells us who God is and who we are. That was what St. Francis prayed before the crucifix. Who am I? Who is God? Our Sign of the Cross reminds us to ask.

Next month: The Hail Mary

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this magazine. He has master’s degrees in theology and in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He also serves as managing editor of Catholic Update and director of electronic media for St. Anthony Messenger Press.


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