One of the most identifiable Catholic traits that signals to almost everyone acquainted with Catholicism that you are a Catholic - is making the sign of the cross and genuflection. As a Protestant (Evangelical/Charismatic) in my first forays of investigating the Catholic Church I would watch as people would enter the Church, genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross. I had witnessed it before but had just dismissed it as one of those strange unscriptural things Catholics do. But as I began to dip my toe so to speak into the Tiber, I thought I had better find out why.
This article will be split in two – this weeks’ will be on the sign of the cross and next week on genuflection.
The Sign of the Cross
The first known reference to signing with the cross is from Tertullian in the 2nd Century who wrote;
‘In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross’. Tertullian, De Cor Mil iii.
It seems to suggest the widespread nature of this particular devotion and also that the initial signing was on the forehead, not the larger one that covers our entire bodies as we do now. Tertullian also speaks of a woman signing her bed before she fell to sleep. St Jerome spoke of signing on ones lips. The signing of food and other objects also became common. St Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386AD) wrote:
'Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest'. (Catecheses, xiii, 36).
The initial signing motion had one thumb or finger but then was changed to two to reflect that Jesus was fully human and fully God. As things developed it moved to a fully body gesture, rather than just on the forehead. It also began to employ the use of three fingers, including the thumb, in making the sign, which was to denote the Blessed Trinity. This was certainly developed in the East but eventually moved to the West as well. The Sign of the Cross is mentioned in homilies of the Anglo Saxon Church by Bede and Aelfric. It is also spoken of in King Henrys Prayer book (11th Century). Eventually Latin Catholicism just used the open hand when making the gesture. The Sign of the Cross is mentioned in too many places to record here, but for the Church, both ancient and modern it became an outward sign of that inward Grace.
Identity politics is all around us today, one group vying with another for attention and status – but our identity lies in the sign of the cross. When we enter the church and place our fingers in holy water and make the sign (not during Covid restrictions of course!) we are linking the crucified Christ with our baptism in which we died to sin and entered the Church as Sons and Daughters. When we make this sign, we identify with the God who came to Us and became God with Us. If done with the 2 fingers and thumb, this speaks of our Blessed Trinity, it speaks of the death and resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. As many writers and Saints throughout Church attested it is a shield against the evil one, having been and is used in exorcisms. But more deeply it is a shield because when we do it, in faith, the bible teaches us that faith is a shield against the fiery darts of the evil one. When the Gospel is read and we make the sign on our heads, lips and heart - we are asking God to bless our heart and mind to be open to the Gospel and then bless our lips to speak it (like in Isaiah 6). It therefore is preparing us for the world as men and women who follow Christ and share His love. Making this Sign then links us deeply with God, it brings us close to Him and acts as a way of refocusing us on Him and being sharers of Christ to the world.
Not so strange after all
As I said at the start, I had previously disregarded the sign as a strange Catholic practice. It is of course not merely Catholic, Orthodox as well as some Protestant traditions use it – and it is certainly not strange. When I enter Church now and make the sign I know that I am saying to God I believe and follow you. Next time you go to Mass or indeed go anywhere, make the Sign of the Cross and reflect on the deep significance of this seemingly simple gesture.