Today, I’m thinking about the “sign of the cross.” This is the very public hand motion and prayer that Christians make when beginning or ending another prayer or when otherwise wanting to show their special faith or devotion in regard to some action. The motion traces a cross on one’s body using the fingertips of the right hand, first to the forehead, then to the breastbone, then to the left shoulder, and finally to the right shoulder. It is most often accompanied by the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”
A former pastor at my parish used to say that the sign of the cross is a kind of blessing. It is like blessing ourselves, or asking God to bless us. Other blessings that I’ve experienced, such at the end of Mass or when a priest blesses a sacramental, also involve a hand motion in the form of a cross, but just in the air. I’ve always considered it as telling the Lord that we are about to do something (like say a prayer) in his name, or in the name of the Blessed Trinity. Some athletes make the sign of the cross, apparently asking God to bless them prior to attempting some sports action, such as a baseball player stepping into the batter’s box.
When we enter a Catholic Church, we dip our fingertips in holy water prior to making the sign of the cross. This action with holy water is intended to remind us of our baptism while calling down God’s blessing on us. For many of us, myself included, this action has been so routine that our baptism doesn’t enter our minds. Lately, because it’s been on my mind, I do recall my baptism and what it means. Some of us don’t dip our fingerprints in the holy water, nor make the sign of the cross on this occasion, perhaps because they believe the Protestant complaint that it is superstition; that the water is just water and nothing special.
I remember, growing up, our family always made the sign of the cross before the prayer before meals (in the privacy of our home) or the rosary. And when we went to a restaurant, we did not pray before the meal, so no sign of the cross. However, I’ve become more faith-filled since then, and now I do make the sign of the cross and pray the prayer before a meal at a restaurant and I’m very proud to do so. It’s a very public expression of my faith.
My final thought for today is about the holy water. Holy water is ordinary water that is specially blessed by a priest, bishop, or deacon. It is a sacramental – a religious “object” or action created by the Catholic Church as opposed to by Jesus Himself. One of these days I’ll do a blog post on sacramentals. In the photograph, Father Maurice Currant is blessing a picture of the Blessed Mother as he makes the sign of the cross in the air above it.