Summary: We make the sign of the cross in our worship to show the embrace of the Blessed Trinity around our persons and our community.
Monday of 12th Week in Course
June 20, 2011
the Spirit of the Liturgy
Abraham, first called Abram, is named as our father in faith in the Roman Canon. What that means as we look back on him from the perspective of Jesus is that he offered himself as a gift to God more than he offered his sheep and goats. When God called, he said “yes,” even to the point of being willing to offer his son, the foundation of his legacy of an uncounted progeny, in sacrifice. As such, Abraham, who did not have to give up his only son, his beloved, became the eternal sign of the love of God, who loved us so much that He gave us His only-begotten Son in sacrifice, to fulfill the covenant He made with Abraham.
The sign of Abraham and Isaac’s covenant with God was the physical sign of circumcision. But early in the Church’s history, certainly before Paul’s voyage to Rome, Christians stopped thinking of themselves as Jews. Whatever their genetics, Hebrew or Greek, they did not undergo circumcision. Baptism was their gateway of entry into the New Covenant, and daily or weekly communion was their renewal of that Covenant. So what was their outward sign of faith?
In 1873, archaeologists were digging on the Mount of Olives, which from pre-Christian times has been a cemetery. They discovered funeral inscriptions bearing the sign of the cross, from the beginning of the first millennium. For a long time it was thought that these were the tombs of the earliest Jewish Christians. But after years of these discoveries in clearly Jewish areas, it had to be admitted that these signs of the cross were Jewish. The sign of the cross, however, was not the sign of the Crucified. In the 9th chapter of Ezekiel, God is giving orders to an angel who is carrying a writing case and pen. Most of the Jews of Ezekiel’s day had lost faith in the true God. He tells the angel to go “through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sign and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” The mark is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Tav, which is written as a T or X or cross. So late Judaism adopted this sign as a sign of divine ownership. “It corresponds to man’s longing for God, his suffering for the sake of God, and so places him under God’s special protection.” Making this sign is a profession of faith.
The cross, very early in the Church’s history, was transformed by the Resurrection from a sign of shame into an ensign of victory, of ultimate triumph. There is some indication in Galatians that St Paul carried with him a cross and used it in his preaching. In the letter to the Ephesians we can see the image of Christ. Paul appeals to us to be rooted and grounded in love, so we “may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” The sign of the cross goes with that teaching. St. Irenaeus says that the Word of God embraces the whole world, “its breadth and length, its height and depth, for through the Word of God all things are guided into order. And the Son of God is crucified in them, since, in the form of the Cross, he is imprinted upon all things.”
We make the sign of the cross many times in our day, I hope. When we do so in public, perhaps in a restaurant, we are professing our faith. When I conduct a wake, I begin with the sign of the cross and invite those attending to do so. It immediately tells me and everyone else what portion of the worshipers are Catholic. It’s interesting that most of our separated brethren, Protestants, refuse to make the sign of the cross. Some day we ought to ask them why a sign that marks us as Christians is not used by all Christians.
In the Mass, we make this sign over ourselves twice–once when we begin our prayer, and once when we accept the celebrant’s blessing. We do not sign ourselves at the confession of sin because that is not a true absolution. What is the sign for us? It should be seen as not only a profession of faith, but as an embrace by the Trinity. So I try to remember to make it big, to embrace my whole being–head to chest and shoulder to shoulder–exactly where the embrace of a parent or a love would be felt. “Through the cross, we can become sources of blessing for one another. . .Blessing is a priestly gesture, and so in this sign of the cross” we feel the priesthood that is shared by all Christians. Encouraged by the Holy Father, let’s use the sign of the cross more frequently as a sign of love and blessing in our daily lives.