Why do Catholics Cross Themselves?
One of the most visible signs of one’s Catholicism is “making the sign of the Cross”. At the funeral of my wife’s beloved Aunt Carol, the non-denominational pastor happened to open his comments at the memorial “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”. Almost as a reflex, another guest and I made the Sign of the Cross. I was willing to bet the other guy was Catholic.
The Sign of the Cross (signum crucis) is such a visible emblem of one’s faith (generally Roman Catholic) it is readily recognized by society. Movies use it to depict a character’s fear, a transition to death, the religious faith of a villain (Chappy had the antagonist cross himself for no other reason to take a cheap shot at Christians, particularly Catholics), spiritual warfare and so forth. Soccer players are always crossing themselves entering the pitch, leaving the pitch, scoring a goal, missing a goal, or saving a goal. Or being fouled. Or being red-carded…
Anyhoo, why gesture the sign of the cross? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2157 The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.
OK but is this Biblical?
What’s interesting about the sign of the Cross is how much it reflects in the Bible—both Old and New Testament. Signs and marks of a spiritual nature appear as early in the Bible as Genesis 4 when Cain was made to be a wanderer after the murder of Abel:
And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod east of Eden.
Later we see a mark put on the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the Passover. Then there is the infamous Mark of the Beast told in Revelation, sensationalized in a number of prophecy fiction books and movies:
13:16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
From this passage, many an author has conjured that in a future dystopia, men and women will be tattooed with a universal bar code on their hands or foreheads, or injected with a subcutaneous microchip and monitored with global positioning. What those writers don’t realize apart from the ludicrous interpretation is the mark on the forehead or hand originated—not in Revelation with the Beast—in Deuteronomy 6 with the Law:
6 And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
These were idiomatic statements, not to bind them literally on your body but to meditate on them with your mind (believed resident between your eyes) and do them in deed (thus binding them on your hand). It wasn’t enough to believe in the Word of the Lord, it had to be part of the fabric of one’s life in deed, speech, and thought (uh—sounds also a lot like that other paradigm shift, Salvation through Faith and Works, but we won’t go there).
In such instances, God marks his own as we see in Ezekiel during the events leading up to the Babylonian captivity. Ironically, it was the wicked that were carted off to Babylon while the righteous were marked off, protected and “left behind”:
Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherubim on which it rested to the threshold of the house; and he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side. 4And the LORD said to him, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” 5And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; 6 slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.
We see a similar act in Revelation:
7 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2Then I saw another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads.”
The passage goes on to describe those sealed from every tribe and nation, clothed in white robes symbolizing the seal of Christian baptism. In the early days of Christianity, the baptized would cross themselves on the forehead in conformity with the directives of Scripture in which those chosen are sealed thereupon. Even today, before the Gospel is read at Mass, congregants will cross themselves with an “+” on their forehead, an “+” on their lips, and an “+” on their heart so that God’s Word would be always on their mind, always in their speech, and always in their heart. This has evolved to be the sign of the cross often executed when someone enters the sanctuary, hears the trinity, ward off evil or play a game of soccer.
Joseph Ratzinger was already well known as the premier Catholic theologian before he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. In his book, “Spirit of the Liturgy” he talks about the sign of the cross which is worth quoting:
To seal oneself with the sign of the Cross is a visible and public Yes to him who suffered for us; to him who in the body has made God’s love visible, even to the utmost; to the God who reigns not by destruction but by the humility of suffering and love, which is stronger than all the power of the world and wiser than all the calculating intelligence of men. The sign of the Cross is a confession of faith: I believe in him who suffered for me and rose again; in him who has transformed the sign of shame into a sign of hope and of the love of God that is present with us. The confession of faith is a confession of hope: I believe in him who in his weakness is the Almighty; in him who can and will save me even in apparent absence and impotence. By signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on. We accept it as a signpost that we follow: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). The Cross shows us the road of life—the imitation of Christ.
With so much tradition, meaning and Biblical reflection behind the sign of the cross, with immediate recognition by a fallen society, knowing that God marks his own, the question is not why do Catholics do so, but why do other Christians neglect the practice?