Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 12, 2007
Why do Catholics make the sign of the cross?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
The sign of the cross remains even in the most advanced stages of dementia.
The Apostolic Constitution, a fourth century collection of ecclesiastical laws, prescribes the sign of the cross at the beginning of the Eucharist.
Augustine (354-430) strongly reinforces the importance of this usage: "Unless that sign be applied to the forehead of believers or the water out of which they are regenerated or to the oil for the anointing chrism or to the sacrifice which nourishes them, none of them (the sacraments) is properly administered."
The practice in everyday life is expressed by Tertullian (born in 160): "At every step forward, at every entrance and exit, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of life, we trace on the forehead the sign of the cross."
He also tells us that "the flesh is signed so that the soul may be fortified."
John Chrysostom (347-407) aptly summarizes the usage of this sign both in liturgical and everyday activities: "Everyone is constantly making the sign of the cross on the noblest part of the body. Each day, people carry around the sign formed on their foreheads as if it were a trophy on a column.
"We see this sign shining forth on the sacred table, at ordinations and along with the body of Christ at the sacred mysteries. Anyone could see a whole chorus of these signs of the cross in houses, in the marketplaces, on the hills, at sea, on ships, on beds, garments, on golden vases, on gems."
The larger cross traced on head, breast and shoulders to which we usually refer when we say "the sign of the cross" was in use by the fifth century. Catholics have been well known for this large sign of the cross in private and in public.
Both large and small crosses were and are used in a variety of situations: beginning and end of Mass and other liturgical functions; at the Gospel; in the administration of the sacraments; before and after prayers, even a short grace before meals; as an expression of faith when passing a church; as a prayer when beginning a task; blessing of one's children; in times of danger and death.
Interestingly, the sign of the cross remains even in the most advanced stages of dementia.
Why then do not all Christians use this sign? Some do, although not as frequently or formally as Catholics. Some use it more as a private pious practice or in liturgical services; others may not use it at all.
To really understand the general lack of the sign of the cross and other practices among Protestants, one has to look at the period of the Reformation. Reformers such as Luther objected to what seemed to be superstitious practices among Catholics, mostly uneducated in their faith.
Once this trend began, it was easy to reject many other things, not rejected by the reformers, Catholics reacted similarly. What the reformers rejected, Catholics clung to with a greater ferocity, even if not essential to the faith.
Therefore, there developed a distancing from each other and a fear that something was either "too Catholic" or "too Protestant."
However, with Vatican II, we began to see value in each other's practices. Catholics began to study and read the Bible more, something often considered too Protestant before.
Some Protestant churches have re-discovered and re-claimed Christian practices which they had once rejected, such as more frequent reception of Communion, the observance of Lent and Advent, devotion to Mary, the sign of the cross.
Do we follow our early Christian ancestors? Do we make the sign of the cross a frequent prayer? It can accompany and sanctify our daily actions.
During Lent, we could strive to become more conscious of the numerous times the Church offers this prayer: by the priest in the Eucharistic liturgy, in the administration of the sacraments, especially the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.
Perhaps we need to re-think and re-assess our own daily use of this short and to-the-point prayer we have inherited.
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