Corpus Christi Blog

The Sign of the Cross

04-14-2024Weekly ReflectionJen Arnold, M.A.

Today, I'm going to talk about something that most, if not all, Catholics tend to take for granted — the sign of the cross. It is a ritual we perform for various purposes, but primarily in prayer. While it is natural to us and may not often be consciously thought about, the sign of the cross has been the source of some controversy in Church history and even up to today. So, let's explore the sign of the cross, its history, significance, and how it has been historically defended.

The sign of the cross is an ancient Christian ritual in which the believer marks himself with a cross shape by tracing his fingers from his forehead to his chest and across each of his shoulders or simply tracing a cross on the forehead alone. Along with the action, the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” are spoken or thought in recognition of the Triune God. The act is performed in various circumstances, such as beginning and ending prayer, remembrance of baptism with holy water, warding off evil, or identifying oneself as a Christian. The practice began in the early Church and remained an uncontroversial issue until the effects of the Protestant Reformation brought the ritual into question.

The primary argument against the sign of the cross by nonCatholic Christians is that it cannot be found in scripture. While it is true that the term is not explicitly found in scripture, it is also true that many other theological terms are not explicitly found in scripture. For example, many Protestants believe in scripture alone and the rapture, which are not terms found in the Bible. Furthermore, words like Trinity, Incarnation, Bible, original sin, and spiritual warfare cannot be found in the pages of Scripture, yet they are recognized by almost all Christians as implicit realities and accepted as doctrine. Similarly, the sign of the cross finds its roots implicitly in scripture.

In the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, God is going to punish the Israelites for idolatry, but first he instructs that all those who are sorrowful for the sin that’s taking place to be identified by a mark on their foreheads so they will not be harmed:

And the LORD said to him: Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it. (Ez 9:4)

The New Testament book of Revelation also extensively describes how, in heaven, the righteous must have a seal placed on their foreheads to identify them as servants of God (see Rev 7:3, 9:4, 14:1). There is a clear scriptural precedent that God’s people are marked with a visible sign or a seal by His command. Therefore, by performing the sign of the cross, Catholics are recalling and living out this scriptural tradition in day-to-day life.

Now that we have established the scriptural foundations for the ritual, we can look at what early Church Fathers had to say about its use. While there are countless examples, here are a few from various points in history:

  • Tertullian (160-240AD) – At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign. – The Chaplet, Ch 3
  • St. Athanasius (296-373 AD) – “Put away your strife with us and you shall see the power of the Cross of Christ.” And having said this he called upon Christ, and signed the sufferers two or three times with the sign of the Cross. And immediately the men stood up whole, and in their right mind, and forthwith gave thanks unto the Lord. – Life of St. Anthony, par 80
  • St. Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 AD) – With the sign of the living cross, seal all thy doings, my son. Go not forth from the door of thy house till thou hast signed the cross. Whether in eating or in drinking, whether in sleeping or in waking, whether in thy house or on the road, or again in the season of leisure, neglect not this sign; for there is no guardian like it. It shall be unto thee as a wall, in the forefront of all thy doings. And teach this to thy children, that heedfully they be conformed to it. – On Admonition and Repentance, par 17
  • St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315386AD) – Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. – Catechetical Lecture 13, par 36
  • St. Jerome (347-420AD) – In every act we do, in every step we take, let our hand trace the Lord’s cross. – Letter 22, par 37
  • St. John Chrysostom (347-407AD) – When therefore thou signest thyself, think of the purpose of the cross, and quench anger, and all the other passions. When thou signest thyself, fill thy forehead with all courage, make thy soul free. – Homily 54 on Matthew’s Gospel, Ch. 7

Even while separating from the Catholic Church, Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism of 1529 – “In the morning, when you rise from bed, sign yourself with the holy cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ At night, when you go to bed, sign yourself with the holy cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’”

As the Reformation gained momentum, John Calvin began distancing his movement from long-held Catholic beliefs and practices, including the use of images and art, citing them as idolatrous. By extension, the sign of the cross was condemned as a superstitious physical manifestation of the spiritual reality of the Cross and, therefore, forbidden by Calvin. As the Calvinists began producing and distributing literature denouncing certain Catholic beliefs and practices, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) wrote his own books defending them, including The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language.

In this short book, St. Francis explains the significance of the sign of the cross as a means to identify fellow Christians, a profession of faith, a fulfillment of prophecy, an acknowledgment of the Triune God and His power, and a rebuke and defense against Satan and his demons. Most importantly, he explained that the power of the ritual does not come from the act in and of itself, but that it’s God’s own power working through the performance of the human act, just like when God commanded Moses to strike a rock for water (Ex 17:1-7) or when the Israelites could only win the Battle with Amalek while Aaron and Hur supported Moses’ arms in the air (Ex 17:8-16). Even Jesus’ own power was revealed through a human ritual when he healed a blind man. Jesus made a mask with clay and saliva, but it wasn't until the man washed his eyes in the Pool of Siloam, as Jesus commanded, that his sight was restored (Jn 9:1-7). All of scripture contains a very long history of God revealing His power through human activity.

If you have been Catholic for any significant period of time, making the sign of the cross is likely second nature to you. It is a comfortable expression of your faith rather than something you spend time contemplating. This week, be more intentional when you make the sign of the cross and think about it from a new perspective. Recognize the scriptural, historical, and powerful significance of the act. Thank God for this and the many other ways he has enabled us to practice our faith in both body and soul.