Making the Sign of the Cross
The Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2021
Saint Bernadette, the famous seer of Lourdes, was once asked what her favorite prayer was. She answered, perhaps surprisingly, that it was the Sign of the Cross. She noted that the Virgin Mary herself taught her how to cross herself correctly – slowly and deliberately – making this action with the prayer and reverence that it ought to be made. She learned all this simply by watching how Mary herself made the Sign of the Cross during the apparitions. Most of us would not list the Sign of the Cross among our favorite prayers!
The Sign of the Cross is a prayer without words. Catholicism is full of prayers like this. For example, when we genuflect before a tabernacle, we are actually praying with our bodily posture. When we bow our heads before receiving communion, this action too is a prayer. Walking in procession to receive communion can be a prayer. There are many other examples of this.
One of my favorite classes that I like to teach is “Why do Catholics do that?” We Catholics have so many ritual actions that we can forget why we do them or where they came from. The Sign of the Cross is one such ritual, and it has an interesting history.
The Sign of the Cross is a remembrance of our baptism, and most of us need this reminder because we were too young to remember the real thing. Likewise, we recite the Nicene or Apostles Creed at each Sunday Mass as a way of re-affirming our baptismal promises each week and the beliefs that we hold in common. Baptism begins the journey toward eternal life that continues after death. Baptism confers a kind of dual-citizenship.
The next time you witness a baptism, notice that the very first action the priest or deacon performs is to trace a cross on the head while saying “I now claim you for Christ our Savior by tracing the Sign of the Cross on your forehead” … and then the parents and godparents are invited to do the same thing for the child. It is precisely this cross and the baptism that immediately follows that we are reminding ourselves of when we make the Sign of the Cross. This is especially in evidence when we enter the church and dip our hand in the holy water before crossing ourselves.
In the early church, the Sign of the Cross was made just as we do in a baptismal ritual. It was a small cross made originally just on the forehead that over time gradually grew bigger to encompass both shoulders and the whole upper body. This ancient way of signing ourselves is preserved in the three small crosses we make before hearing the gospel: one on the head, the lips and the heart as we pray Lord, open my mind and my lips and my heart that I may worthily hear (or proclaim) your gospel. The Sign of the Cross is one of our most powerful prayers…. Each time we pray it well, we are ritually reminding ourselves that we have been claimed for Christ – we belong to Him forever!