Monthly Archives: June 2016

Sign of the Cross (Signum Crucis)

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?

Regina Caeli (Queen of Heaven)

If you’ve been reading the paradigm shift series, particularly on topics of Marian Theology, and if I am persuasive, you may concede some Catholic points: maybe it’s fine to venerate Mary; and maybe she should be rightfully called Mother of God; maybe Jesus draws his human nature from The Virgin. And maybe she can intercede on our behalf as part of the communion of saints—maybe.

But Queen of Heaven?

This is where Protestants think that Catholics have stepped over the line, believing this title equates Mary to the likes of Juno, Hera, Frija, and other consorts of the old pagan gods.  But the notion of Mary as the Queen of Heaven is not extra-biblical nor something cooked up in the imagination of the medieval Catholic mind. Not only is it a logical conclusion to be drawn from widely accepted Christian theology, but quite Biblical and not in some misfit deuterocanonical book.

The first thing to learn about the title “queen” is what it meant in the ancient Near East, particularly in the Davidic lineage. Unlike the European monarchies which are most familiar to us, the queen was not the one and only wife of the king, but the mother of the king. Why? Because the practice at the time was polygamy and the king had many, many wives and so many, many “queens”.

In fact, the wives of the king, also called a harem, was something of sign of one’s kingship. We see this in the Bible, particularly in 2 Samuel 16 after Absalom usurps power. What does he do to signify his new status? He avails himself of the remaining portion of the harem of the palace and does so in full view of Israel. We also see a prototype of this in Genesis where Noah’s son, Ham, sleeps with Noah’s wife (and Ham’s mother) as a play for power. The fruit of that illicit union was Canaan. Ever wonder why he was cursed (Gen 9:25) or why Canaan is mentioned with the other sons (Gen 9:18)? This passage about nakedness was a euphemism for sexual relations, not about nudity. And let’s not forget about the countless wives king Solomon amassed as a matter of political maneuvering (and against Mosaic Law at any rate).

The queen (or more precisely the Queen Mother or Dowager Queen) on the other hand, was the mother of the king and one of the most powerful position next to the king himself. This is also evident in the Bible. The mother of king Solomon, Queen Bathesheba had special deference from and special access to the king as illustrated in 1 King 2 regarding the intrigue of Adonijah.

Perhaps for this reason, whenever a king is introduced to the historical narrative, the queen mother is also introduced. After Solomon’s reign we are introduced to a sequence of kings in the divided kingdom starting with Jeroboam in Israel and Rehoboam in Judea. And often with every introduction of the king, we see the king’s mother introduced as well:

1 Kings 11:26 Jerobo’am the son of Ne’bat, an E’phraimite of Zer’edah, a servant of Solomon, whose mother’s name was Zeru’ah, a widow, …

1 Kings 14:21 Now Rehobo’am the son of Solomon reigned in Judah. Rehoboam was forty-one years old when he began to reign, and he reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem, the city which the LORD had chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, to put his name there. His mother’s name was Na’amah the Am’monitess.

1 Kings 15:1 Now in the eighteenth year of King Jerobo’am the son of Ne’bat, Abi’jam began to reign over Judah. 2He reigned for three years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Ma’acah the daughter of Abish’alom.

1 Kings 15:9 In the twentieth year of Jerobo’am king of Israel Asa began to reign over Judah, and he reigned forty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Ma’acah the daughter of Abish’alom.

Whoa, was this lady the mother of her grandson too?  Here we see another example of incest. So powerful was the queen, certain women held on to it for as long as they could, apparently. Here’s another at the end of 1 Kings:

1 Kings 22:41 Jehosh’aphat the son of Asa began to reign over Judah in the fourth year of A’hab king of Israel. 42Jehosh’aphat was thirty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Azu’bah the daughter of Shilhi.

We see this pattern appear many times and at the end of 2 Kings where we introduce the last kings just before the Babylonian captivity.

2 Kings 24:8 Jehoi’achin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Nehush’ta the daughter of Elna’than of Jerusalem.

2 Kings 24: 18 Zedeki’ah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hamu’tal the daughter of Jeremi’ah of Libnah.

And in the lineup of the exiles out of Judea we see the mother mentioned in the pecking order second to the king himself.

2 Kings 24:12 and Jehoi’achin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his palace officials.

But now we have Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the king of kings, whose kingdom is to have no end. By the same logic, who would be the queen mother in this Davidic dynasty? The Church thinks Mary has this title if you believe she is the Mother of Jesus and, by extrapolation, the Mother of God. Temporally, perhaps that lands her the rightful title of queen mother. But Queen of Heaven?

If the kingdom of God transcends and is not of this world (John 18 36), then in what kingdom would she be queen? If that is not enough we have Revelation 11:19 – 12:

19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. 12 :1 And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. 3And another sign appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; 5she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

The argument here is that the mother of the male child caught up to God is Mary and, we might surmise, that this is Mary (prefigured in the Old Testament by the Ark) who appears “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”, appears as a queen. Critics would say that this female figure is not Mary but the Church, the Bride of Christ, and that would be true too—this interpretation meshes with Catholic teaching as well. But like much of scripture there are potentially multiple meanings in each verse, this part of Revelation being such a case.

To a lesser extent, the language of redemption includes such terms as “coheirs”, “judges”, “reign” as well as “children of God” and “a kingdom and holy Priesthood” hinting to a promise that all of us will be nobility in the kingdom of God. If this is orthodox for rank and file Christians, why is the special title of Queen withheld from the woman which all nations are instructed to call blessed?

So one may or may not believe in the Mary Queen of Heaven coronation. The point of this essay is to at least show that the Catholic teaching on the subject is not cut from whole medieval cloth as Protestants would claim. Indeed, there is a lot of biblical basis to support this Catholic claim and at least make the idea plausible.

Paradigm Shift – Prayer and Vain Repetition

The nature of personal and corporate prayer changes significantly when moving toward Catholicism. This Paradigm Shift will examine some of the prayers that Catholics recite and objections non-Catholic Christians raise regarding those prayers.

Prayers offered in evangelical churches are always improvisational and often conclude with some form of the phrase “in the name of Jesus”. I believe this practice derives from the passage John 14:13

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; 14if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.

Prayers in the Catholic Church can also be improvisational but more often the Church draws from its huge tradition to say composed prayers, particularly at Mass, but on just about any occasion.  Catholics don’t typically pray “in the name of Jesus” but more often in Trinitarian form, e.g., “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.


Catholic prayers are criticized by Bible Christians as being formulaic, mechanical, extra-Biblical and repetitive—especially the Rosary, labeling it “vain repetition” citing:

Matthew 6:7 And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Some have tried to make Jesus’ words into a universal condemnation of long or repetitious prayers, however, according to Catholic theology, this is not the intent. In ancient times there was a pagan belief that the gods could be controlled by special incantations and the enunciation of the right divine title at the right time. We see this in 1 Kgs 18:25-29 when Elijah stands against the prophets of Baal.

And they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Ba’al from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered.

Elijah mocked them:

“Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

Although the verse above in Matthew condemns vain repetition it does not condemn repetition—in prayer, in worship, in meditation and in other areas. Like it or not, repetition is a large part of life and learning. Without repetition how would we learn the alphabet, words, reading, and for that matter, the Bible. Are not Bible Christians taught to memorize and recite verses of scripture? And how can one accomplish that without repetition? And why is this not vain repetition too?

And why should prayers be any different than verses of Scripture? The Lord himself encourages perseverance in prayer (Luke 11:5-12; 18:1-14), and he himself prays all night (Luke 6:12), and repeats one of the most solemn prayers of his earthly ministry (Mark 14:39-42). And we are exhorted by St. Paul to pray constantly (1Thes 5:17).

So let’s look at the Catholic practice of repetition in prayer, specifically the Rosary, which includes a number of standard prayers often repeated. Is this vain?

More than just a medium of prayers, the Rosary is an educational tool used to pass on the faith, especially at a time when books and literacy were uncommon. The rosary (lower case) refers to the associated prayer beads used to recite the prayers. These beads are grouped into decades and upon each decade, one is to meditate on a particular mystery in the life of Christ and Mary from annunciation, conception, nativity, crucifixion, resurrection and beyond. With four sets of mysteries of five decades each, that’s 20 episodes from the life of Christ (and Mary as part of that life) that Christians are good to meditate upon. Bible Christians might even like the Scriptural Rosary (ca. 1500’s) which recalls a verse of scripture for each bead totaling 150 verses of scripture in the full blown meditation.  In the earliest prototype of the Rosary, monks developed a mechanism with a bag of pebbles to recite the 150 Psalms. Lots of scripture, lots of meditation and to be sure, lots of repetition.

How about the prayers themselves?

The Rosary starts with the sign of the cross—another topic—followed by the Apostles Creed. This creed is an old prayer not found in the Bible but few Protestant denominations object to it. Many even recite it in their church services even though it uses the adjective “catholic” which they take to mean “universal” in the lower case.

Then the Lord’s Prayer is said at the beginning of each decade—still no objection other than what words are to be used for “debts” or “trespasses”—not a game changer.

Then the Hail Mary which is the most repeated prayer of the Rosary and one that Protestants object to a great deal. But the first part (“Hail Mary full of grace…”) is straight from the Bible in the gospel of Luke—so why object to it? The second part was added in the Middle ages (“Holy Mary Mother of God….”) which is only objectionable if one does not believe in the communion of saints or intercessory prayer (See Paradigm Shift on the Communion of Saints)

Then the Glory Be which was a prayer composed by the ultimate Bible scholar of all time, St. Jerome. This prayer is Trinitarian and should not be objected to by Protestants.

Finally, not always but often, the Fatima Prayer which is directed to Jesus Himself. Although stridently Catholic, no one should be offended by a prayer to keep one and others out of the fires of Hell. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

To conclude the Rosary is the Salve Regina (not repeated) which would cause Bible Christians to recoil in horror. This is a prayer to Mary, Queen of Heaven, which is another topic altogether.  Obviously the requirement would have us believe that Mary is the Queen of Heaven and why Catholics believe it so. And yes, it is Biblical.

So understanding what Jesus was saying when he was talking about “vain repetition” is important and that repetition itself is not condemned. Then understanding the origins and nature of Catholic prayers is also important to dispel false perceptions of Catholic teaching.