The Sign of the Cross
By Father Wade Miller
People often suffer from “Romeophobia.” This is not an actual disease but a reaction to anything that looks too Romish or catholic. A reaction to anything remotely catholic is deeply embedded in the American psyche. The founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were some of the most extreme religious radicals and would be considered the original progressives of the 17th century. Individual conscience was the ultimate judge of truth for these rebels. This period of history happened during the time known as The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a period of deep distrust for establishment and tradition, especially if it meant giving up one’s own autonomy.
Here in Virginia, things were not quite as radical. Order was upheld and valued. There was an allegiance to the crown in England until the various Acts passed Parliament without proper representation. England’s longstanding wars with the French and Spanish, however, brought about its own disdain for the Pope and the Roman Church by our English ancestors. The Bishop of Rome was seen as both a spiritual monarch and a secular despot in the eyes of most Englishman. Whether or not that is a fair assessment is beyond the scope of this essay. The record of history shows tense relations between the Pope and the British Monarch, which reached a crescendo with King Henry VIII and Pope Gregory VII.
This focus of this essay is not to provide a history lesson, or to argue for a particular side in the question related to church and state issues. The purpose of this background is to simply set the stage for the distrust and skepticism that most Americans have for anything that displays the slightest hint of being catholic. Most Americans who witness one making the sign of the cross, or possessing a crucifix, or using a rosary automatically think of idolatry. I (Father Miller) can certainly sympathize with such sentiment as that was my reaction growing up in the Bible-belt as well. It was not until I began to understand the reasoning behind such practices that I had to re-examine my attitude. The first catholic practice that I misunderstood was why people make the sign of the cross.
I grew up rooting for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team during the end of the Big Red Machine era. Davey Concepcion was one of my favorite players. Each time this Venezuelan shortstop would step up to home plate, he would go through a ritual that concluded with making the sign of the cross several times over his chest. I thought that the sign of the cross was simply another form of good luck like that of a rabbit’s foot. I concluded that “catholics” simply chose their superstition over the Bible.
What I came to find out, however, is that the sign of the cross is the symbol of the Trinity, which is the identity of every baptized Christian. In baptism, all Christians are baptized into the Name of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is in this rebirth by the Holy Spirit that we receive the sign of the sacred cross. Making the sign of the holy cross is not a good luck charm; it is the precious name of God that is given to each of us in our baptism. In baptism, we received this shield and identity that marks us as children of God, being born again through the ark of the Church. Baptism is not a mere event that happened to us in the past; it is the rebirth that is to be renewed daily. Confession, repentance, and making the sign of the cross are ways we renew our life as baptized Christians.
The sign of the cross is normally used at the Name of the blessed Trinity, or the thrice word “holy” that is in direct reference to our Triune God. It is used at the end of the creed when referencing the resurrection of the dead, which is the fulfillment of one’s baptism. It is often used in connection with someone who has died, acknowledging their continual growth as they prepare for the final resurrection when Christ comes again as judge. Christians often make the sign of the cross at the consecration and elevation of the blessed sacrament, remembering that access to this sacred feast comes only through our Lord’s death and resurrection, which we received as benefactors in holy baptism. The sign of the cross is often made at the announcement of the reading of the holy Gospel by crossing one’s forehead, lips, and heart as a reminder to take heed to the Word of Christ as baptized Christians. Other times that the sign of the cross is used is when passing an ambulance or cemetery, in times of danger, or other occasions that make us contemplate life, death, and our allegiance in being citizens of the Kingdom of God.
There is no law that states one must make the sign of the cross. Judgement is not made on those who do or don’t make the sign of the holy cross. Like kneeling, standing, or smelling the aroma of incense, making the sign of the cross is a reminder that our salvation is a gift given to us through the physical substance of water that connects us to Jesus, who is fully divine as well as fully human. The sign of the cross is a reminder of who we are, and that our identity is bound to God – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Instead of reacting to things that seem too catholic, let us do what Christians have done from the very beginning, living in the light and identity given to us in holy baptism, which is remembered by making the sign of the holy cross.