April 11, 2012

Why do Catholics make the Sign of the Cross?

As a cradle Catholic, the sign of the cross is something I have been doing for years and years.   I have seen it as a way of starting and ending my prayers and a way to call upon the Trinity.  It's something that I do automatically, without even thinking about it as I make the motion.  I also have to admit that I haven't even always used the sign of the cross in all my prayers, particularly in the context of Christian groups where most people do not make the sign of the cross before praying.

You can imagine my embarassment when I began to realize how important the sign of the cross is to our religion.  I have mentioned this book before, but my husband and I did a couple's study at our church on A Biblical Walk Through the Mass by Edward Sri, and it has taught us both so much about how everything we do at Mass is rooted in the Bible.  Edward Sri says that the sign of the cross is not just used to start and end your prayers, but it is actually a prayer itself.  When we do the sign of the cross, "we invoke God's presence and invite him to bless us, assist us, and guard us from all harm." 

I have always known that we are calling upon the Trinity when we do the sign of the cross.  Edward says the "ancient Isrealites frequently called upon the name of the Lord, not only to praise him (Ps 148:13) and thank him (Ps 80:18, 105:1), but also to seek his help in their lives (Ps 54:1, 124:8)."  People throughout Scripture called on God's name, including the earliest followers such as Abraham and Isaac.

Early Christians constantly made the sign of the cross, and a quote from Saint John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) in the book says "Never leave your house without making the sign of the cross...Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you with such powerful armor. [The cross] has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and restored the universe.  Would you then doubt it's power?"

While so many of us make the sign of the cross as a part of our routine in prayer, early Christians made the sign of the cross very frequently, and they saw it as a very, very powerful and necessary  prayer for protection.  The tracing of the cross over the body of Christians is seen in the Bible, and the mark of the cross is seen in the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament, as they put marks on their foreheads that were seen as "a sign of divine protextion and as a mark distinguishing the righteous from the wicked."  This sign on their foreheads was a Hebrew letter tahv, which is the shape of a cross or an X.   There is also a passage in Revelation 7:3 that shows the saints in heaven having some sort of seal upon their forehaeds, which is believed to be the cross.

As the cross was a mark of the righteous in the past, every time we make it we are showing that we want to be commited to Christ, and we do not want to live according to the world's standards.  Also, we are asking for God's protection from evil every time we make it.

What all this means for me: The sign of the cross makes me think of the Bible quote Ephesians 6:13 - "Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day, and having done everything, to hold your ground." I kind of feel like doing the sign of the cross is a way of putting on the armor of God for my day. I am becoming more intentional in doing the sign of the cross instead of doing it in a rushed, routine way when I do my prayers. I want to think about the words and the power of the sign of the cross each time I do it.  I am also trying to remember to make a sign of the cross every time I leave my apartment as a prayer of protection for my day.

" 'Make a large cross, taking time thinking what you do.  Let it take in your whole being - body, soul, mind, will, thoughts, feelings, your doing and not-doing - and by signing it with the cross strengthen and consecrate the whole in the strength of Christ, in the name of the triune God.' "
- Romano Guardini in Edward Sri's "A Biblical Walk Through the Mass

By the way, I highly, highly recommend this book to Catholics who want to understand more about the Scriptural basis for what we do in Mass, as well as to anyone outside of the faith who wonders why we do certain things during the Catholic mass. I know I have had many friends wonder about all of the standing and kneeling among other things, and this book has amazing explanations for everything that are based on Scripture.



  1. Beautiful! More people need to hear about this.

    In Christ,

  2. I also used to do the sign of the cross in a rushed way, but a while ago I started actually performing it slowly, thinking about every word I say...and I can really sense the power in it, even though it seems like a simple gesture.

  3. Excellent. Just what I needed to read today. I am still so new to the faith and making the Sign of the Cross in front of non-Catholics has made me feel a bit shy, but it is powerful and important and I should not be embarrassed or nervous to make known my beliefs. Beautiful reminder of our faith in the Divine Trinity. Great post!

    1. Thanks Megan! It can make me feel shy in front of non-Catholics as well, but the book helped me realize I shouldn't be.