I knew how to do the sign of the cross growing up. As far as “easy prayers to memorize” go, it has to be at the top of the list and so usually is the first prayer that kids learn. Also, kids being kids, we occasionally speed things up a bit so that we can get to the really important things in life like, um, legos.
This recent post by Stuart Dunn at Catholic Exchange reviews St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross. It’s a helpful reminder of the surprisingly deep insights that this simple prayer can provide. In the few times that I have presented to RCIA groups where the sign of the cross has come up, I’ve mentioned a few points of interest that, in addition to Dunn’s comments, may provide you with some thoughts the next time you cross yourself. As always, you can mine the depths of knowledge that New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia has to offer on the subject.
- The prayer itself has ancient roots, not only in the patristic era but allusions appear in Revelation and even the Old Testament. Praying this simple prayer unites us with Christians of the earliest days.
- It apparently began as a symbol traced on the forehead and has evolved to the larger version used more often today. Of course, the forehead version is still used for blessings, like what my eldest son and I do to each other when I tuck him in at night. I particularly like this notion of imparting a blessing on kids; they realize that we pray for other people instead of just ourselves.
- It is a subtle but unmistakable tool of evangelism. You aren’t flashing it in others’ faces, but everyone knows that only Christians do it. Unlike other outwards signs, like wearing a crucifix, a Yolo wristband, or a hijab, the sign of the cross is temporary. There is something particularly “in the world but not of the world” about it when you stop your daily life to cross yourself, pray, and then resume life again. It is an intentional, not passive, expression of faith that invites others to observe what you are doing. Of course, this means that our behavior after signing ourselves, after announcing Whose we are, needs to be in accordance with what we believe.
- Dunn mentions the significance of using three or five fingers to touch the body; I’ve heard it described as using the thumb and first two fingers extended to represent the Trinity, and the last two closed fingers represent the hypostatic union. It was new to me to learn of using all five fingers to represent the five wounds.
- The physical, nonverbal aspect of the prayer is powerful by itself. It is a short trip to thinking of prayer as simply an intellectual or spiritual exercise and ending up downplaying or even disliking the idea that we are physical beings as well as spiritual. “Why do you have to move your hands all around when you pray? And why all the ‘sit/stand/kneel?’” Because we are the only creature in God’s creation that is not simply a spirit, like the angels, nor simply material, like animals. We have bodies animated by spirits. The denial of this human trait, of which even Jesus Himself shared, led (leads?) many heretics from the Church. Using our bodies to pray the sign of the cross reminds us where exactly the temple of the Holy Spirit is.
- The physical act is, of course, to trace the sign of the cross on our bodies. In this, we are reminded of the mode by which Jesus saved us. The sin by which we all would be condemned was overcome not by the Resurrection but by Jesus’ Passion and death. I think there is much to mentally and spiritually chew on to contemplate why Jesus died on the cross; presumably there were a myriad ways one could die in ancient Jerusalem. Diseases were far more common and lethal, medical care was unthinkably crude, food quality and sanitation were likely horrendous to modern tastes, and of course there were the ox carts. He could have been stabbed or poisoned by one of His many enemies. But the reality was a public crucifixion, capital punishment performed by the state under pressure from the religious authorities, of a particularly painful and demeaning kind. I won’t pretend to know the entire significance of why He chose to die this way, but I’m sure several an adoration hour could be spent meditating upon it.
- The words we use, invoking the name of the Holy Trinity as Jesus Himself taught us, signify the greatest mystery of our faith. The fact that God is not only the omnipotent, omniscient creator of everything but also Father boggles the mind. The transcendent and the imminent meet. This God also walked our earth in a specific place and historical time in the person of the Son. The defining characteristic of God is a love that is so real and powerful that it is another person, the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit or breath that hovered over the waters in Genesis 1 and descended on the early Church in Acts 2 strengthens us now, leading us to prayer and repentance and filling us with joy.
Like virtually everything else in Catholicism, the simple things can be incredibly deep. And, like the prayers we are used to reciting, the repetition chisels the reality of the prayer into our souls, sort of a spiritual muscle memory.
For bonus points, do it in Latin!