Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Sign of the Cross

In a group of strangers, when we spot someone making the Sign of the Cross, we immediately recognise them as Catholic. If you're like me, you will become mildly excited, and you can't wait for the prayer-in-process to be over so that you can approach and say hi to that fellow Cath, and maybe strike up a good conversation, starting with what church they go to. Indeed, of all the Christian prayers, the Sign of the Cross is the shortest, loudest, and most distinctly Catholic; it is an immediate outward announcement of those sealed in Him.

Let me tell you the reasons why this Sign has a special appeal to me:

1. It's Biblical.
Like the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, the Sign of the Cross is very biblical. Check out Matthew 28:19. So the next time someone challenges you to prove your "Biblical-Christian"-ness by reciting some verses from the Bible, just pray these prayers and grin like a boss.

2. It's powerful.
The Sign of the Cross is a sacramental. All the official prayers of the Church, including the Holy Mass and the sacraments, begin with an address to the Holy Trinity: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Demon expulsion begins by tracing the Sign over everybody present including the possessed. Numerous miracles are performed upon making the signum crucis; for example, St. Benedict avoided death by poisoned wine, St. Francis of Assisi tamed a hungry wolf, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux cured the sick. Above all, we are baptised, absolved of our sins, and anointed in the name of the Blessed Trinity.

For me personally, this Sign is a source of rapid consolation. A bit like an intravenous drug, but better, faster, and longer-acting. There are days when I am just fed up with everything around me. I order a meal and sit down grumpily. When the meal comes, I make the Sign out of habit, and there it is: the rush of divine comfort my soul longs for. Why should I worry then?

And if that's not enough, do you know that a partial indulgence is granted when you do this weird Catholic gesture thingy?

3. It's short.
How often have we tried to excuse ourselves for not having time to pray? I know, because I'm guilty of it too. But the Sign of the Cross is, in itself, a prayer, a very short one, about 2 to 4 seconds to complete. Think about it: even without "real" prayer, if you cross yourself every time you wake up in the morning, before and after every meal, before and after study or work, and before you go to bed at night, you will have prayed at least 10 times during the day! [Of course, I'm not recommending not praying at least once a day. My point is, this Sign alone will remind you that you are always in the presence of Him who is Good, Truth, and Beauty. Which brings us to the next point:]

4. It pronounces the most profound Christian mystery.
The Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the heart, the most basic foundation, of a Christian belief. Those who claim they are Christian but do not profess a faith in the Triune God, are not Christian. This is the more reason why we have to make the Sign with the utmost reverence and gravity. You know, not like you are brutally chasing away flies. When done correctly, this pious sign serves as a mini-catechesis to yourself and others who see it. You will have preached even before preaching, and you will have made a deep impression upon your hearers without having said a single word.

5. It's a victory over the flesh
One of the big bosses Church Fathers, Tertullian (ca. 226 AD), wrote: "The flesh is signed so that the soul too may be fortified." A lot of us might be skeptical about this "sign on the flesh", because, hey, it's just the flesh isn't it? It's the heart that counts! Well, then, why do patriots refuse to salute another country's flag? It's just a physical salutation, right? A patriotic American should freely salute a Spaghetti Republic's banner while remaining loyal to the United States at his heart, correct?

Well don't say that last statement out loud lest George Washington smite you. It's high time that we acknowledge the close relationship between our physical gestures and the state of our hearts. The latter influences the first, yes, but the first also forms the latter. Sometimes we do certain things out of mere obedience to the established ritual, but that is good enough for a start, because your heart will follow before you know it.

It is the same with the Sign of the Cross. We are physical beings, we make signs using the flesh and on the flesh. But that very moment when you trace yourself is when you decide to crucify the desires of the flesh and to live by the Spirit. And since the way of the Spirit is not popular with the world:

6. It takes real courage.
Where Catholics are minority, crossing oneself takes courage and a certain level of sacrifice. You don't have to scream "I'm Catholic!", the Sign does it all. You don't want to wield a sword among your kins, the Sign does it for you. Of course, it's not without consequences. I've been asked about my faith by some people who find my gesture either very interesting or very loathsome. Some Protestants, naturally, see it as an opportunity to bring yet another poor Roman Papist back to the Christian faith (ah delicious irony!). Making the Sign in public silently yet boldly declares oneself as an unabashed disciple of Christ, and that one is [hopefully] not afraid to bear the cross on his back, just like the cross on his chest.

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