Lent is drawing near and today our catechumens and candidates, Colin and Lauren, Lynsey and Chisomje, have taken a decisive step towards Easter. Today, the Lord tells us in the Gospel to seek first the Kingdom of God – exactly what our brave quartet is doing – and not to worry, not to be anxious. There is a Father who knows our needs.
We have witnessed today the beautiful rite of the signing with the Cross, done once by the celebrant and seven times by the sponsor. The whole body, the whole person is marked and sealed: forehead, ears, eyes, lips, breast, shoulders, hands and feet. And such good words go with this: ‘receive the sign of the cross on your hands, that Christ may be known in the work you do.’ And so on.
I’d like to give a little catechesis on this simple, beautiful Christian practice: the sign of the Cross. Not a squiggle with a mumble, but a careful gesture accompanied by a word. It’s a sign. And like many signs, it means many things. It says and does a great deal.
We begin every Mass with the sign of the Cross and we end it with the same, as we are blessed. Many people, entering a church, bless themselves with holy water and the same when they leave. Before we’re baptised, we are signed with the sign of the Cross – when it’s a baby, first the celebrant does it, then the parents and godparents. When we are anointed at Confirmation, the chrism is put on our forehead in the form of a cross. On Ash Wednesday, it’s the same with the ashes. If we are praying with a dying person, it would be natural to sign their forehead, at least, with the sign of the Cross. I don’t often quote Martin Luther, but he said the sign of the Cross should be the first thing the Christian does on waking and the last before sleeping. Today, the whole body of each catechumen is signed with this sign, and so, in a way, is our whole life. The Cross signifies Christ’s love for us. It’s the sign of his victory over sin and death. So, when we make this sign, we are placing ourselves under the protection of Christ and the Trinity. We are saying to ourselves, Don’t be anxious. I am not forgotten. protected. I am sealed and safe. I belong to someone stronger than all the anti-forces that threaten me. I will conquer in Christ. It’s always good to see sports people doing this before a competition! And anyone with the use of their hand and arm can make this sign. It’s for children and adults, men and women, old and young. It has a simple beauty, a noble simplicity.
We don’t know when Christians first began making the sign of the Cross, but it was very early. The first Christians received from the apostles the sense of being marked, sealed, signed by Christ and his Cross. It followed on naturally from that. So, already in the 3rd c., Tertullian could say: “In all our travels, when we enter our house and when we leave it, when we put our shoes on, when we have a bath, at the table, lighting our lamps, lying down, sitting down, whatever we are busy with, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross”. And from the 4th c., St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the cross be our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our forehead and in everything; over our food and drink, in our comings and goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest” (Catecheses, 13).
Let us just do it, slowly… The words go with the sign. The Father with the forehead, the Son with the diaphragm, the Holy Spirit with the shoulders. The Father is in heaven, the Son has come down to the earth, into the guts of humanity, and the Holy Spirit joins everything together into unity. Three persons in the Trinity, one nature, one name, one gesture. Western Christians make the sign of the Cross from left to right, Easterners from right to left. One interpretation is that the two shoulders symbolise the Jews and the Gentiles: Christ’s Cross is salvation for everyone. In the East, the thumb, index and middle fingers are held together: 3 persons, one God. And the last two fingers kept together and turned to the palm: the two natures of Christ. As I say, many meanings.
The sign of the Cross is a reminder of our baptism.
It’s a profession of faith. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, the dying, bed-ridden Lord Marchmain suddenly makes a large, slow sign of the Cross, and unbeknown to him converts Charles Ryder. In the rather frigid climate in which we have to live our faith, it’s a powerful, unpretentious, non-aggressive way of saying we’re Christians. It’s good to do in public places, when occasion warrants, in a restaurant for example. It’s impressive to see Muslims going down for their prayers in public; well, a sign of the Cross may touch a heart.
It’s a power against evil. St John Vianney said in the strong language of the saints that, when we make this sign, ‘the whole of hell trembles.’ I read of one man who struggled with anger. If he felt it rising, he’d make the sign and it would abate. It’s a declaration of war. It’s a weapon for the spiritual combat. It makes us crusaders in the best sense. We go into battle armed with this sign.
Most of all, it’s a prayer. It’s a calling on God to protect us. It’s inviting him into whatever we are about to do. It dedicates what we’re going to do.
So, as we accompany our catechumens and candidates, here’s a suggestion for Lent: to brush up our sign of the Cross. Not a squiggle with a mumble, but a clean, clear, conscious, unhurried, reverent, prayerful gesture.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 26 February 2017)