Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sign of the Cross - Sign of Unity

This past week I returned home to help my wife's parents move. During the packing, we discovered a box of reading materials that I gave to my wife while we were dating and before she decided to become a "fulfilled Baptist" by joining the Catholic Church.

I read with pleasure a short tract that I gave to my wife on the sign of the cross. (The sign of the cross is made by all Catholics and Orthodox Christians as well as a few Protestants; it consists of tracing the cross on the head and torso of an individual.) The tract beautifully described the history of the sign of the cross--which dates back to the first centuries of Christianity--its meaning, and its role for believers today. Much of the information contained in the tract can be found at these websites: New Advent, This Rock (1990), and Fisheaters. Rather than repeat the work that has already been done, I would simply refer my readers to these articles. UPDATE (08/01/2009): I recently was informed about two book length discussion of the sign of the cross: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006). Excerpts from Ghezzi's book can be read on Google books here. See also this recent article in Christianity Today. UPDATE (08/23/2009): Here is another link, from which I take the following quote from our Holy Father:

Making the sign of the cross -- as we will do during the blessng -- means saying a visible and public "yes" to the One who died and rose for us, to God who in the humility and weakness of His love is the Almightly, stronger than all the power and intelligence of the world.

-Pope Benedict XVI
September 11, 2005

David Currie describes in his book Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic that the only people in the first century to bring the Gospel to Africa were either some of the apostles and/or the African eunuch described in the Book of Acts. After the early missionaries, no other missionaries went to Africa for centuries. When the next group of missionaries finally arrived, the discovered that although the Africans had lost some elements of the faith, they had maintained the frequent making of the sign of the cross. This historical fact points to the apostolic origins of the sign of the cross.

The early church fathers attest that miraculous healings frequently occurred when the sign was traced over someone who was sick.

Considering all of these materials, the following question came to mind:

Why don't most Protestants make the sign of the Cross?

I have never heard a good answer to this question. The answer sometimes given is that the practice is nowhere to be found in the Bible, yet this is hardly a convincing answer, since non-Catholics practice many things not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Further, we are talking about the sign of the CROSS. Protestants trace the cross on their Bibles, their clothing, their churches, their pews, and in dozens of other places. Why do they not trace it on themselves?

I think the underlying reason is also the one I hear expressed most often, though usually not directly: "because that is something that Catholics do."

If the Cross is uniquely Catholic, then let me be nothing else! But, in fact, the cross is not uniquely Catholic. Or better yet, all Christians who claim the cross are in fact particularly Catholic in this one area. Indeed the sign of the cross is one of the most powerful symbols of unity among Christians who remain divided in so many other ways.

Given that the cross is such a critical common ground between Catholics and non-Catholics, I invite all non-Catholic Christians to make the sign of the cross in their personal and communal prayer along with their Catholic brethren. What a wonderful sign of unity and solidarity this powerful sign would be.

Most importantly, what a powerful witness the sign of the cross is in a world that constantly attacks souls and minds through visual images. Imagine if all Catholics and non-Catholics made the sign of the cross at restaurants before partaking of a meal--what a way to silently preach the heart of the gospel to everyone around! And what a way to express to our dying culture the unity that we do share!

One final thought: we sign our names all the time, don't we? We sign them on contracts, on bank checks, on forms, on our homework. Our signature is attached to almost every important action and transaction that occurs on the plane of our day-to-day affairs. Yet, our family names are not our most important ones. Our baptismal name is the most important name that any human can receive. And just as there is only one baptism, there is only one baptismal name that we each receive. We are each baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is quite literally our true family name.

Does it not follow then that we should sign our spiritual family name on ourselves AT LEAST as often as we sign our family name on paperwork that is of so little spiritual consequence? Do we hesitate to sign our true spiritual name, yet scribble our family name all over without a second thought?

Let us never fail to trace the sign of our salvation, the anchor of our hope, and our shield against all temptations on ourselves as often as we think of it. Let us join St. Paul in preaching Christ--and Him crucified! Only through Christ is Man saved, and only through the Cross did Christ redeem all men.

Let us pray in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


whw said...

Sadly, the perception that the sign of the Cross is "something that Catholics do" isn't restricted to Protestants. In fact, I have been told by some Catholics that they would be personally offended by seeing me make the sign of the Cross. They would regard it at least as misrepresentation (pretending to be Catholic when I'm not); worse, as an insult to their faith, and a mockery of their practice. I think this is unfortunate, as I completely agree with DBS's passionate and eloquent arguments on the subject. I would gladly make the sign of the cross, if I knew that I could do so without giving offense to my Catholic brethren. But I don't think it's appropriate for me to try to change their perception, or to intrude on something they perceive as uniquely theirs.

Ready said...

@whw...I'm sorry that some Catholics misrepresented the Catholic faith to you, which in no way excludes anyone from making the sign of the cross. It is a sad fact of current "identity politics" that the signs we make as Christians are seen primarily as a political marker or division rather than as a Christian profession of the faith that unites us.

Not only do I welcome you to join us in spiritual solidarity by signing yourself with the cross of Christ in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but I rejoice in the common ground on Christ established through this practice, one that was apparently taught universally by the apostles themselves (though it seems to have changed form over the years, having originated as a cross made only on the forehead, as Tertullian tells us).

All that being said, your final comment is a bit worrisome, as it seems to imply that this issue ultimately isn't one of great significance. After all, the Bible doesn't forbid Christians correcting one another in love; in fact, it provides for this very possibility (Matt. 18). Further, if the Lord instructs Christians to do something (as he has in this case through the tradition passed on by the apostles...and in his command to be unified), isn't putting a fallen Christian's (obviously distorted) will over God's will not the right decision? Since I know that whw to be a man of God, and I assume that he would not offend God in order to avoid offending man, then I end up needing to read the final sentence as a subtle claim that God doesn't actually care one way or the other about whether or not Christians make the sign of the cross.

I think this is a mistake, and I think God cares about this gesture very much. Not only did God choose in the early church to perform miracles through the act of tracing sign of the cross on other Christians, but it is also an issue of apostolic authority. And ultimately, it is also an act of division to choose to not make the sign of the cross, or to be complicit in the degradation of this symbol to a mere sign of political division.

The sign of the cross is a wonderful gift taught to us by the apostles and passed down to us through the universal church since the beginning. Let us unite around the cross of Christ, the fruits of which we share in through our common baptism.

Let us pray for Christian unity, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!