Monday, August 23, 2010

A Case For The Sign of the Cross

The making of The Sign of the Cross, or crossing oneself, is often mistakenly believed to be a purely Catholic ritual. Comedian Bill Cosby once joked about Catholics, calling us quiet people and that we "could communicate with God using hand gestures." Cosby also joked and said that us Catholics didn't have to shout the way Protestants did.

But crossing oneself is not just a Catholic ritual. It is used by Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodoxy and to various degrees in Protestant denominations like Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Anglican churches.

Understanding The Sign of The Cross

The making of The Sign of the Cross isn't (or shouldn't be) an empty hand gesture, it should be used to begin prayer, in blessings by priests and accompanied by the words "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the Sign of the Cross:

CCC 2157 The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior's grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.

How Do You Make The Sign of The Cross?

One takes their right hand touches their forehead (which symbolizes Heaven and the Father for wisdom), then their stomach (which symbolizes the earth and the Son who became incarnate) and then shoulder-to-shoulder (which symbolizes the power of the Holy Spirit). Catholics make the motion from their left shoulder to right but many Orthodox Christians go right-to-left.

There are various ways to use the right hand for crossing oneself. Some Christians use an open hand to represent the five wounds of Christ. Others use two fingers (index and middle finger together or crossed) to represent the human and divine nature of Christ. The more common way in Catholicism is to place the thumb, index and middle fingers together to represent the Holy Trinity.

Criticism Of Its Use

Some Christians have criticized usage of making the Sign of the Cross as not scriptural. However, making the Sign of the Cross on the forehead has been a part of the early Church since the 2nd Century. But it begs the question: Does everything have to be in the bible in order for it to be a good or Holy thing? We greet people with a handshake, we wave at friends when we see them in public places, so why can't we use our hands for prayer? Prayer helps us establish and keep a friendship with God.

There are many different religions in the world whose followers all pray to a God or Gods. The use of the Sign of the Cross easily identifies us a Trinitarian Christians (those who believe in the Holy Trinity). Making the Sign of the Cross also reminds us of our baptismal promise since we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And having sat in a special Mass for the deaf and hearing impaired, where we had someone translating the Mass readings into Sign language, it was quite moving and unifying to see these people all make the Sign of the Cross in unison with the rest of the congregation.

Why We Shouldn't Take It For Granted

I remember watching a video of the 1981 Canada Cup with a Russian hockey player friend of mine named Mikhail Kravets. In the championship game, the Soviet Union faced Canada and playing in the nets for the Soviets was the great goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. Tretiak had come under fire from Soviet hockey coach Tikhonov.

In the 1972 Summit Series, Tretiak gave up a goal to Canadian Paul Henderson with 34 seconds left in Game 8 to give Team Canada the win in the series. In the 1980 Olympics, Tretiak was pulled and replaced in the first period of Soviet Union-USA game which saw the upstart Team USA comprised of college kids defeat the Soviets in what is now called "The Miracle on Ice."

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Americans were led to believe that most Soviets were atheist because atheism was the official religion of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet Union discouraged religion and oppressed it. My friend Kravets was Russian Orthodox and he smiled and pointed out to me in the video of the championship game (between the Soviet Union and Canada) how the Vladislav Tretiak inconspicuously made the Sign of the Cross in the nets just prior to the drop of the puck. Tretiak, hunched over, disguised crossing himself by fidgeting around with his goalie glove but it was an obvious Orthodox right-to-left Sign of the Cross.

Tretiak and the Soviets went on to win that game 8-1 and take the Canada Cup. Tretiak was named Tournament MVP. Ten years later, the Iron Curtain fell and today, 72% of Russia's population consider themselves Christian.

And if anything, making the Sign of The Cross before prayer serves as a visual reminder to others of what Jesus said in Luke 14:27:

"And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple."

The Cross, whenever and however we see it, also should remind us as Christians that it represents the greatest evil--the creature kills The Creator--but more importantly, the greatest love--that Christ willfully suffered a humiliating, brutal death out of love for us.

So in essence, it is a sign language of FAITH and LOVE

But to those who live or lived in countries where Christianity was oppressed, it was a sign language of FAITH, HOPE and LOVE.

In the name of The Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Peace be with you,

© Michael J. Cox

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