The priest, first of all, traces the sign of the cross on the book of the Gospels to show that the cross of Christ is the source of all blessing and that the words of the Gospel are the words of the one who died on the cross for our salvation. Then he makes a small sign of the cross on his forehead, lips and heart. I believe that it is very important for all those who are listening to do the same as we are active participants, not idle spectators at Mass.
The prayer said by the reader of the Gospel: "Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips that I may be worthy to proclaim your holy Gospel" applies to all of us.
When we sign ourselves on our foreheads, lips and heart, we are asking God to enlighten our minds and to purify our hearts so that we may faithfully announce, with our lips, God's word to the world. In addition, our interior disposition must correspond to our words, as the cross made over the heart signifies.
Making a small sign of the cross on oneself or on objects has a long history in Christianity. It has a more ancient origin than the large sign of the cross to which we may be more accustomed. Tertullian (c.160-c.225) and St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.315-c.386) speak of making this small sign of the cross on ourselves and on objects. On the other hand, the large sign of the cross to forehead, chest and shoulders seems to have originated about the fifth century and popularized in the ninth.
The sign of the cross is an expression of faith in symbolic form. Symbols speak more eloquently than words and point to a deeper meaning. They are easier and quicker to understand than words.
This is the why the sign of the cross was often used and the reason for the emergence of the large sign of the cross at the time of heresy.
The cross traced on oneself is a prayer asking God's blessing upon oneself. What do we ask God for?
A 12th century theologian sees this prayer for blessing at the Gospel as the readiness to stand up for the word of God proudly without hiding our face, confessing it with our mouth and keeping it faithfully in our hearts. That is the grace we need to ask God to give us.
We should not be apologetic but should hold our heads high as we profess and live our faith in Christ. This is an ever-greater need in our society today when Catholicism, too often, is denigrated in the public arena, whether in jest or not.
We used to be up-front about our Catholic practices, for example, making the sign of the cross before a meal in a restaurant. There were few Catholics in the rural area where I grew up. Dances were held regularly in the local public school but because we Catholics didn't dance during Lent, other types of social activities were held instead.
Evidently, there was a certain respect for our religious practices because we were not afraid to live our faith.
It is time that, once again, we stand up for our beliefs and not be afraid to show ourselves as living according to our principles.
The Gospels are clear in this respect. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus said, "They who shall be ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed" (9:26) and in Matthew 10:32, "All who confess me before others, I will also confess them before my Father in heaven."
When performed attentively and prayerfully, this beautiful custom of crossing oneself, which has been practised for more than a thousand years, will unite us to all those faithful Christians and martyrs who, before us, have prayed for God's blessings and been fearless in the profession and practice of their faith.