True story. One Sunday morning in an Erie, Pennsylvania parish, the pastor began Mass just as it has begun in the Catholic Church for centuries. Facing the congregation of parishioners, he announced, “Let us begin. In the name of the Father… and of the Son …and of the Holy Spirit.”
Suddenly, he paused. Staring out at the assembly before him, he offered a half-smile, shook his head and asked boldly, “What are you people doing?” He paused for a moment as if waiting for a response. Then while mimicking what he had seen, he asked in a chiding tone, “Do we have an infestation in here? You look like you are swatting at flies.”
A muffled ripple of nervous laughter passed through the assembly. Then the pastor said, “Seriously, why do you hurry in displaying a sign of faith that has meant so much to so many for centuries? Remember the martyrs who suffered for it! Honor the One True God who suffered on it! It is so much more than an incidental gesture. Let’s try this again.”
How many of us have been just as casual in our treatment of the Sign of the Cross?
As Catholics, the Sign of the Cross is a symbol of faith that aligns us with the first Christians. Although Martin Luther did recommend making the Sign of the Cross at bedtime and upon arising in the morning, most non-Catholics never honored the tradition, many still viewing it today as a Catholic practice, with the exception of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and the Presbyterians, who use it specifically at baptisms. However, the Sign of Cross is not just a simple gesture of faith, as much as it is a prayer, binding us in our relationship with Christ and his sacrifice.
To appreciate the significance of the Sign of the Cross, we must respect its history.
Used by the Roman Empire as their “execution of choice,” crucifixion was considered the most horrific form of execution until it was outlawed by Emperor Constantine in 337 AD. Ironically, even though the Romans promoted it, they made it illegal to crucify Roman citizens. They consider it too inhuman, reserving crucifixions solely for criminals, runaway slaves, and defeated enemies. Even more ironic is the fact that Jews did not condone crucifixions of Jews. Their Jewish law called for quick executions that were considered “as painless as possible,” such as stoning, strangulation or throwing the condemned off a cliff. How interesting that they detested Jesus so much that they felt crucifixion was more appropriate for Him even though he was a Jew. An then there was King Herod who found crucifixions too horrible even for his purposes. Referenced by historians as “the evil genius of the Judean nation,” Herod was infamous for his murderous retaliations. You might recall that he ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents, endeavoring to kill all the first born male children in Bethlehem in an effort to eradicate the Christ child. He also burned to death 40 Jews who disagreed with him. Murdered wives. Executed sons. Executed rabbis on a whim. But he didn’t consider himself quite evil enough to use crucifixion.
The Romans sadistically refined crucifixion through a calculated process. The scourging prior to crucifixion was designed to weaken the body and the spirit. Then the placement of every nail on the cross was designed so that the victim suffered excruciating pain and agony while prolonging death. They knew exactly where to place the nails so that they would not hit a major artery and promote a quick death. As gravity pressed down on the nail-bound human form, breathing was excruciating. The victim had to lift himself up using the nail in his feet as a pivot to relieve the pressure on his diaphragm just long enough to grasp or expel a breath. Otherwise, he would asphyxiate.
After enduring this horrific suffering and agony, Jesus Christ triumphed over the cross and over death thus turning the cross into a victory symbol for Christians.
In the infant stages of the Church, in order to further Christ’s mission, the early Christians had to carefully conceal their identify. They would acknowledge themselves to one another by tracing a cross on the ground with a stick or with their sandal, then quickly wiping away any traces. In time, as the followers of Christianity grew, so did the visible sign of faith. Christians began to trace the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads and then on themselves as we do today. Although Scripture does not identify the symbol specifically, theologian scholars interpret St. Paul’s message in Galatians 6:17 to mean that he is referring to the Sign of the Cross; “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”
So now when you make the Sign of the Cross will you look like you are swatting at flies? Or air-drawing some odd shape in front of you? Or will you take the time to delineate the sacred symbol in your gesture that is the unmistakable sign of victory, faith and belief?
Let the words of Fr. Almire Pichon, the Jesuit priest who was the spiritual director for the Martin family who gave us St. Theresa of Liseaux inspire you:
“I believe that if our Sign of the Cross were always made as if in the presence of God, rather than as if we were chasing away flies, it would open for us the heart of God. Each Sign of the Cross brings us nearer to God. For with each Sign of the Cross well made, there is one added degree of eternal glory. Each Sign of the Cross made with devotion deposits within your heart another degree of love, which you would not have had without it.”
Live your faith out loud. You may be the only Bible that someone will ever read.
© 2013 Diane McKelva. All Rights Reserved. Reprint with permission only.