The roots remind us that the sign of the cross is not a prayer to take lightly. Its significance exhorts us to participate in the ritual meaningfully and frequently.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
More than just a way to begin praying, the sign of the cross is a form of prayer itself filled with so much meaning that stems from ancient tradition. Despite its simplicity, the sign of the cross is powerful. This is not something most of us inherently pick up on. More often than not we dismiss its power by performing it merely out of routine, taking it for granted. It wasn’t until I had heard a homily about its grandeur this past Sunday that I began to research its origins and take the ritual more seriously.
To begin, I think it makes most sense to explore its origins, particularly its biblical roots. Though not specifically named as such, some Church Fathers saw an early indication of the sign of the cross in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Ezekiel. In it, Ezekiel had a vision of his people worshipping other idols and violence enveloping the city. Because of this abhorrence, the city was to be punished and people would be taken into exile. However, not all participated in the ways the city has adopted. Some chose to remain faithful. And these faithful received a mysterious mark on their forehead as a sign of divine protection and a way to distinguish the righteous from the wicked. This would signify the protection of those that were faithful when judgment came. The same can be said in the New Testament where in the book of Revelation the saints in heaven are depicted with seals on their foreheads, again distinguishing the righteous apart from the wicked.
Just as early Christians were guarded by this cross, so are we by tracing it over our bodies. From these biblical perspectives, we are showing our desire to be distinguished from the corrupt ways of the world, and invoking God’s protection for our lives. Just as in the time of Ezekiel, we are showing that in a world of greed, selfishness, loneliness, etc., we declare to live according to our faith’s standards and not of society’s. Instead of seeking money, pleasure, and power, we pursue the path to true happiness, found in the sacrificial love and glory of the cross - signified by the sign of the cross. And, in invoking His protection in our lives, we ask to be guarded from all harm and evil, to have strength in the face of temptation, to seek God in the thick of suffering, etc. St John Chrysostom, knowing the power that comes from the sign of the cross, always said to his people:
“Never leave your house without making the sign of the cross. It will be to you a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress. Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you covered with such powerful armor. Let this sign teach you that you are a soldier, ready to combat against demons, and ready to fight for the crown of justice. Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and restored the universe. Would you then doubt its power?”
Outside of the actual tracing of the cross over our bodies, we also call upon God’s triune name “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” As seen in scripture, to call on His name denotes worship, often associated with sacrifice and prayer. Calling His name invokes His presence and power. It offers praise, thanks, and vulnerably seeks His help. By calling upon his name, we invite His divinity and assistance in each moment for “our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 124:8). Knowing this is how we start many prayers and even the Mass, it is like we are also consecrating that time we are devoting to prayer/the holy sacrifice of the Mass to Him and saying that everything we do, we do in His name. Beautiful, isn’t it? Each time we participate in the sign of the cross we are imploring “the name which is above every other name” (Phil 2:9) - our triune God.
The Power of the Sign of the Cross
These roots remind us that the sign of the cross is not a prayer to take lightly. Its significance exhorts us to participate in the ritual meaningfully and frequently. Instead of going through the motions, I invite you to take time to understand the movements and the words. Try to close your eyes and participate unhurriedly, slowly tracing a cross from your forehead to your chest, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling who you are invoking. Let it consume your body, your mind, your soul, and every single part of you. Feel its sanctification with faith and reverence. Do not doubt its power! By it, the world can be transformed and so can your life.