Why do Catholics make the Sign of the Cross? What is the symbolism behind it?
As Catholics, we pray the Sign of the Cross multiple times each day. Why do we pray it, and what’s it all about?
First, consider how we make the Sign of the Cross. In the Western Church, we use an open hand—which is used in blessing (hence we say that we “bless ourselves”). In the East, they hold three fingers together, as a sign of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), while the other two fingers are united as a sign of Christ’s Divinity and humanity.
The words we say confess the mystery of the Trinity. Notice that we say, “In the Name of the Father…” and not “In the Names of the Father”—God is one, so we say He only has one Name—and then we go on to name the Three Persons of the Trinity. Every time we begin a prayer, we recognize that the very core of our faith is that we believe in a God Who is One-in-Three: both unity and trinity.
As we say that confession of faith in the Trinity, we seal the sign of the Cross on ourselves. You are marking, publicly, who you are and Who you belong to! The Cross is our ransom, our “price-tag” if you will, so we remind ourselves that we have been purchased by the Cross. So when Satan comes to tempt us, we make the sign of the Cross to show him that we are already marked!
There is an amazing story in the book of Ezekiel, where an angel comes to Ezekiel and tells him that God is going to chastise all of Israel for its unfaithfulness—but there are still some good people left in Jerusalem, so the angel goes around and puts a mark on the foreheads of those who are still faithful to God. The mark he makes is the “Tau”—the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is drawn like a cross! God has mercy on those marked with the Tau, and strikes down those without it.
In the same way, those of us who are signed with the Cross will be preserved from the justice of God, and will receive His mercy instead. In ancient Egypt, God had the Israelites put the lamb’s blood over their doors at Passover so that they would be saved from the angel of death. Now, by signing the Cross over our bodies, we invoke the Blood of the Lamb upon us, so that we are saved from the power of death!
But where do we put that Sign of the Cross? We put it on our forehead, our heart, and our shoulders. Why? Because we are put here on this earth to know, love, and serve God, so we ask Christ to be the king of our minds, our hearts (our desires and loves), and our actions. Every aspect of our life is put under the Sign of the cross, that we may know, love, and serve Him.
The Sign of the Cross is an incredibly powerful prayer. Often it’s used as the preamble to a prayer, but it has immense power in its own right. During the persecutions of the early Church, some pagans tried to kill Saint John the Apostle because his preaching was turning many people away from pagan gods to embrace Christianity. The pagans invited John over for dinner, and poisoned his cup. But before he began the meal, John prayed grace and made the Sign of the Cross over his cup. Instantly a snake crawled out of the cup, and John was able to escape unharmed.
Listen to the words of Saint John Vianney: “The Sign of the Cross is the most terrible weapon against the devil. Thus, the Church wishes not only that we have it continually in front of our minds, to recall to us just what our souls are worth and what they cost Jesus Christ, but also that we should make it at every juncture ourselves: when we go to bed, when we awaken during the night, when we get up, when we begin any action, and, above all, when we are tempted.”
The Sign of the Cross is one of the most powerful prayers we have—it invokes the Trinity, seals us with the Blood of the Cross, puts to flight the Evil One, and reminds us who we are. Let us make that Sign carefully with devotion, and let us make it frequently throughout the day. It is the outward sign of who we are, and Who we belong to.
Father Joseph Gill is a high school chaplain and serves in parish ministry. He is a graduate from Franciscan University of Steubenville and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. Father Gill has published several albums of Christian rock music (available on iTunes). His debut novel, “Days of Grace” is available on amazon.com.
Are you struggling with procrastination, lukewarmness and boredom? Here are 7 spiritual vaccinations to boost your soul’s immunity Usually we associate the devil with darkness and the night. But there is a worse enemy that lurks when the sun is at its highest, we traditionally call it ‘the noonday devil.’ You begin the day with great enthusiasm and passion, but as it gets close to noon you lose your interest and vigor. This is not a physical fatigue, but more a deflation of the soul. The Desert monks called this acedia, meaning lack of care. This vice is also known as sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, which does not stand by itself, but opens the door to other vices. After having an encounter with the Lord, a soul embarks on the spiritual journey with great passion. But to continue in the same spirit is not easy. After a few weeks or months, laziness or lack of motivation to do anything can beset the soul. This state of indifference, a boredom in the soul, is characterized by a numb spiritual emptiness. Acedia can be described as a spiritual depression. No activity may be pleasing at this stage. Sloth threatens people in all stages of life. It is the cause of many evils. Obviously, it prevents us from working out our salvation. The noonday demon is “the most oppressive of all the demons” (Evagrius Ponticus). It is oppressive in the sense that it brings to mind how difficult it is to practice religious faith or the ascetic life. It suggests that there are many ways to serve God, so one does not necessarily have to regularly pray or perform religious exercises. This mindset takes away all spiritual joy, and opens the doors for joys of the flesh to become the overriding motivation. One of the tricks of this demon is to ensure that a person does not realize that they are afflicted, instilling a distaste for spiritual matters, leading a person to excessive reliance on earthly pleasures until these also lose their delight. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of this as a sterility, dryness, and barrenness of one’s soul that makes the sweet honey of Psalm-singing seem tasteless, and turns vigils into empty trials. Temptations of Acedia Acedia is the ultimate breakdown of one’s capacity to love oneself and others. This makes a spirit lukewarm. The Scripture speaks of them: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3: 15-16). How do you know if you’re under the oppression of the noonday devil? Examine your life and see if you face the following struggles. One major sign is procrastination. Procrastination does not mean that you are doing nothing. Youmay be doing everything except for the one thing you were supposed to be doing. Is that you right now? There are three forms of sloth: occupying oneself with unnecessary things, distraction, and spiritual melancholy or depression. Someone afflicted with the spirit of sloth may involve themselves in multiple things, without focusing on anything. They vacillate from one thing to another. Moments of stillness and peace are very difficult to acquire at this point. Lack of listening to the voice of God makes the soul terribly void. Distraction disrupts focus and recollection, leading to the minimization of prayer and spiritual exercises. This weariness leads to postponing everything. This experience of an interior void and weariness causes spiritual depression. There is a secret anger within. Under this affliction someone feels like criticizing everyone, without personally doing anything creative. Turning to the Onions Instability is another sign of this evil -inability to focus on your own vocational call. Symptoms of instability may be excessive desire to change one’s locality, work, situation, institution, monastery, spouse, or friends. Listening to gossip, entertaining unnecessary debates and quarrels, and complaining about everything are some of the expressions of this acedia-spirit. When they are subject to this, people behave like naughty children: as soon as one desire is fulfilled, they want something else. They may begin reading a book, then jump to another book, then to the cell phone, but never finishing any task. At this stage, someone may feel like even faith or religion is of no use. Losing direction eventually takes a soul into dreadful doubt and confusion. The third sign is exaggerated bodily interests: feeling unable to be in the company of what is distressful and unpleasant for long. The sorrow of the soul leads one to look for alternative sources of joy, then moves on to other things that give pleasure. Saint Thomas Aquinas once said: “Those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body.” When spiritual joy disappears, a soul will automatically turn to the pleasures of the world or to the inordinate appetites of the body, tending to regress to the sins that had been renounced and left behind, craving for “the onions of Egypt” (Numbers 11:5). Someone who fails to look to the heavenly manna that the Lord serves every day will definitely start craving for “the onions of the world”. A frozen heart can be yet another sign of a lukewarm soul. The Scripture says about such a soul: “the sluggard says, there is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets! As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs. 26: 13-15). Again, it says, “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest” (Proverbs 6: 7). Remember the fall of King David. When the armies were at the battleground, the military leader remained in the palace, seeking his own petty interests. He was not where he should have been. Laziness led him to lust, and later to even more heinous sins. An unstructured day leaves the soul more prone to succumb to evil desires. Later, David wrote regretfully of “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Psalms 91: 6). Overcoming Acedia Desert fathers like Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian and others have proposed several ways to combat the noonday devil. Let us explore seven of them: 1.Turn to God in tears: Genuine tears mark the sincerity of the desire for a Savior. They are the outward expression of an inner desire for God’s help. God’s grace is necessary to overcome acedia. 2. Learn to speak to your Soul: Keep reminding yourself of the blessings you have already received. You may motivate your spirit by thanking the Lord for all His merits. When you thank the Lord, you experience an uplifting of the spirit. In Psalms, David says: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my Savior and my God” (Psalms 42:5). “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity” (Psalms 103: 2). This is a fail-safe tactic to fight the demon. I personally, have found this approach very powerful. 3. Perseverance leads to greater desire to do what is good: Desire drives action. Persistent desire is required to overcome spiritual laziness of the soul. Hyper-activism will not make you holy. In our cyber age, one may easily fall into superficial relationships, social media addictions, and real dangers to purity of heart and body. Boredom of the soul and dulling of conscience makes one want to live like everyone else, losing the grace to gaze at the transcendence. We must learn to practice stillness and solitude. For this, we must intentionally set apart a few moments for prayer and meditation. I suggest two simple yet profound ways to do this: (a) Throw some ‘arrow prayers’ to charge the soul. Make short invocations like, “Jesus, I trust in you.” or, “O Lord, come to my assistance.” or “Jesus help me.”Or you can say the ‘Jesus prayer’ consistently: “O Lord Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me, a sinner.” (b) Pray the Surrender Novena: “O Jesus, I surrender myself to You, take care of everything.” You can recite these short prayers frequently, even while brushing, showering, cooking, driving, etc. This will help cultivate the presence of the Lord. 4. Go to the Sacrament of Penance: A spiritually lukewarm soul resists going to Confession. But, you must do it frequently. This is actually a reset button in your spiritual life that can get you back on track. You may be repeatedly confessing the same sins, and doing the same penance for years! Just do it at once. Share your spiritual status with the Confessor. You will receive an amazing grace. 5. Surround yourself with Holy things: Read about saints. Watch good inspiring Christian movies. Listen to the challenging stories of missionaries and missions. Read a short passage of the Scripture every day; you can begin by reading the book of Psalms. 6. Devotion to the Holy Spirit: The third Person of the Trinity is our Helper. Yes, we need help. Pray: “O Holy Spirit, fill my heart with your love. O Holy spirit, fill my emptiness with your life and spirit.” 7. Meditations on Death: Evagrius considered self-love as the root of all sins. By meditating on death, we remind ourselves that “we are but dust, and to dust we shall return.” Saint Benedict taught the rule: ‘To keep death daily before one’s eyes.” Death-contemplation is not to wallow in morbid thoughts but rather to make us vigilant and to commit ourselves to the mission more passionately. These are seven ways to help a soul beat the noonday devil. They are like spiritual vaccinations to boost your soul’s spiritual immunity. Thirst for the Lord will be quenched by “the One” who puts thirst for Him in every soul.
That life-changing moment when you realize…God loves you more in a moment than anyone could in a lifetime… I couldn’t possibly count all the times I’ve told others that God loved them, and challenged them to believe it. God’s unconditional love for us has been a dominant theme in every retreat, parish mission and reflection day I led over many years. I have been eloquently persuasive in convincing a plethora of people to stake their lives on the reality of God’s love for them. But when it came to my own life, getting hold of that truth in a way that penetrated to my core was always an elusive goal. I desperately wanted that conviction to become as automatic as my breathing, but believing that God loved me was something I understood in my head, but seldom felt in my heart. And then I met Maya Angelou. Already nationally known for her writing and poetry, for being a singer, dancer, actress and good friend of Oprah Winfrey, she became a household name when she wrote and recited a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. The following year, she was the keynote speaker at the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress—the biggest Catholic event in the USA drawing twenty-five thousand adults and teens over the course of a long weekend. My wife, Nancy and I were also scheduled to speak and, at the conclusion of Maya’s keynote speech, Nancy was invited to dance while Maya recited her poem. The keynote was astounding. She spoke with great eloquence. She recited poetry. She sang. And she inspired everyone in the room—all six thousand of us. While she was being introduced, I was struck by this anecdote. When a reporter asked her, “What moment in your life changed you most?” Maya instantly replied, “Why, that’s easy. It was the moment I realized that God truly loves me.” When the speech and dance were over, I congratulated Nancy and suggested we go to the speaker’s lounge. “And if Maya is there, I’m going to ask for her autograph.” To my delight we found the usually crowded room empty, except for the Sister who had introduced her speech and Maya Angelou herself. We sat down and chatted, but soon the Sister had to leave. “Before I go,” she said, pulling a notebook and pen from her bag and handing them to Maya, “Would you mind giving me your autograph?" With a dismissive gesture, Maya replied, “Oh honey, I don’t do autographs.” That left only the three of us at the table. I immediately turned to Maya and confessed that I’d also planned to ask for an autograph. “But I realize now that I don’t really want your autograph,” I said. “There is something else I’d like,” I said. “What’s that?” she asked. “I’d like to hold your hand,” I said. “Why, I would love that,” she replied. I placed my right hand palm-up on the table. She place her left hand in mine. I put my left hand on top of hers, and she put her right hand on top of mine. As we sat there with this “hand sandwich” I looked directly into her eyes and told her, “I was deeply moved by the story Sister shared in her introduction, when you were asked to name the moment that changed your life.” Maya didn’t hesitate. Returning my gaze, she said, “Oh yes, oh yes,” she said. “Why even now, even now just to think of it… just to think of how much God loves me…” As she spoke her enormous eyes welled up with giant tears that rolled down her cheeks. As I watched her awareness of God’s love for her turn into those precious tears, I thought to myself, “I want that. I want that! I want to know God’s love for me as fully as she does.” That remained my hope and prayer for many years. Yes, I knew God loved me, but not to the depths of my being like Maya did. Not with a conviction that would move me to tears. That came years later when I received an email from an editor thanking me for an article I had written. She told me I was a “real blessing” to their media organization, then she added, “God loves you very much.” That did it. After all those years of seeking a bedrock conviction that God truly loved me, that one sentence did it! I had never met the editor in person, yet her words sent from across the ocean pierced my heart. It was as if God spoke those words Himself: “I love you very much, Graziano!” I knew it was true. It was a tremendous and unexpected gift. And what a difference it makes! God loves me whether I am good or bad. God loves me when I’m praying and when I’m not praying. I don’t have to deserve it because God gives it freely. And I can’t do anything to make God stop loving me. Not even sin. I have the freedom to break God’s heart and reject his love. But even then, God would keep on loving me. And of course, God had been loving me all along. He didn’t start loving me that day, and that day wasn’t the first time I knew He loved me. But previously I had known it in my “head.” That day, God penetrated my heart with a different kind of knowing…a calm and peaceful assurance that transcends all of life’s circumstances. It took me a long time to come to that point of clarity and certainty, to that serenity that wraps itself around you like a blanket. And what God did for me, He can do for you. Do you want God’s assurance of His love? Just ask. And then wait. It may be a surprise who God chooses to reveal His love. After it happens, you may also find yourself saying, “Oh yes, oh yes... Why even now, even now just to think of it… just to think of how much God loves me…”
The Rosary Stops a Serial Killer Much has been written about the notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy. But here is a story that is only now gaining wide attention. And it gives powerful witness to the miraculous power of the rosary. On January 15, 1978, after taking the lives of two college students living in the Chi Omega sorority house of Florida State University, Bundy began combing the house for more victims. Carrying a bat, Bundy entered the room of his intended next victim, but suddenly stopped where he stood. Then he suddenly dropped the bat and left. The police wanted to know why this girl had survived the attack—why had Bundy stopped just inside her room and fled? The girl agreed to speak with the police, but only if there was a priest in the room. So,the officers called a nearby parish. Though he was not the priest on call that night, the phone rang in the room of Fr. William Kerr (later Msgr. Kerr) and he quickly rushed to the scene. The traumatized girl told the priest of a promise she had made to her grandmother when she had left home to start college. Each night, no matter how late she went to bed, she would pray the Rosary, to invoke the protection of the Blessed Mother. Yes, every night, even if she fell asleep after just a few decades. And in fact, that’s what had happened the night of the killings. Though sound asleep, she still clutched the rosary in her hands when Bundy entered her room. She stirred and saw a bat-wielding man standing over her. Without thinking, she opened her hands, exposing the rosary. Bundy saw the beads and immediately left. Weeks later, Fr. Kerr received another late-night call, though again he was not the priest on duty. This time, the caller was the warden of the nearby prison. Bundy had just been apprehended and requested to speak with a priest. Fr. Kerr met with Bundy that night and continued to receive regular calls from him up to and including the night before Bundy’s execution, when he thanked Fr. Kerr for the help he had given him. Bundy confessed to having committed over thirty murders in his lifetime. But one life, the life of a young girl who had made a promise to her grandmother, that life he didn’t take. Was that life spared because rosary beads fell from her hands? Bundy never said. But we can be sure that there is power in the Rosary, that there is safety under the mantle of Mary’s protection, and that there is spiritual growth and sustenance that comes from praying the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
It is a relentless saga when trying to find the truth but a quick renewal when truth itself finds you Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was once asked what book he would want to have with him if ever he found himself stranded on a desert island. Along with the Bible he chose St Augustine’s Confessions. Some might have found the choice surprising but I think I agree. Having just gone through the book again for the fourth or fifth time I found myself even more engrossed in it than ever before. The first half of the book which recounts his conversion story is especially engaging. Like The Story of a Soul by St Thérèse this book feels at once more familiar after several readings and yet somehow more filled with new lights. What St Augustine does is to instruct us in how to pursue something which is fundamental to spiritual growth, namely, the attainment of self-knowledge. He traces the thread of the working of God’s grace, as well as his own sinfulness, from his earliest memories right through to the time of his conversion and beyond. He even goes back further than his own memories can take him and writes of what he was told of his babyhood by others. The little detail about him being prone to laughter during his sleep as a baby is particularly endearing. After this fourth or fifth reading, I have been left pondering something which I would like to share with you in this short article. It has to do with the influence of his youthful friendships. Parents cannot be vigilant enough when it comes to the question of their children’s friends. So many of us have been drawn away from whatever little virtue we had in our youth by the example and enticement of our wayward companions. Augustine was no different. Life in the fourth century sounds surprisingly similar to life in our own day. Pears and Peers Augustine’s famous story of the stealing of the pears illustrates the point. He probes his memory for the motivation behind the decision to rob an orchard, even though he had better pears at home and wasn’thungry. Most of the pears ended up being thrown to the hogs. He knew full well at the time that what he was doing was an act of gratuitous injustice. Did he do evil then purely for the sake of doing evil? Yet, this is not the way that our heart is generally disposed. Sin in us is normally the perversion of some good. In this case, it was done out of a kind of rambunctious camaraderie and the mocking delight of a group of friends at the thought of the outrage of the owners of the orchard. It was friendship gone awry that was its motive. Augustine would never have done such a thing alone, but only because he was spurred on by his peers. He was desperate to impress them and to have his share in their act of mindless mischief. Friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts, but friendship warped by sin can have ruinous effects. The eloquent lament of the saint unmasks its danger, “O friendship all unfriendly! You strange seducer of the soul, who hungers for mischief from impulses of mirth and wantonness, who craves another’s loss without any desire for one’s own profit or revenge—so that, when they say, “Let’s go, let’s do it,” we are ashamed not to be shameless.” (Confessions. Book II, 9). Captivity There is a similar pattern in relation to the sin which would become fatal poison for Augustine’s soul and which could have led to his eternal perdition. The sin of lust also took hold of his heart as he journeyed with his friends ever further out upon what he calls the “stormy fellowship” of human life. In the company he kept during his teenage years it became the custom to want to outdo one another in lasciviousness. They would boast of their exploits and even exaggerate the real scale of their immorality to impress one another. The only thing that they were by now ashamed of was innocence and chastity. His holy mother had warned him sternly in his sixteenth year to avoid fornication and to stay away from other men’s wives. He would later write to the Lord about his arrogant dismissal of her admonitions, “These appeared to me but womanish counsels, which I would have blushed to obey. Yet they were from Thee, and I knew it not.” (Confessions.Book II, 3) What began with one or two sins of the flesh became a habit before long, and sadly for Augustine, this evil habit would later begin to feel like a necessity. What started as a boast to his friends finally enchained his will and took on a life of its own within him. The demon of lust had found its doorway into the throne room of his soul through a vain longing to impress. The Spark of Truth After reading Cicero at age nineteen, the saving grace of his intellectual quest to discover wisdom was sparked off. This passionate search would lead him through the study of different schools of philosophy, gnosticism, and a prolonged pondering of the problem of evil. All the while, this journey ran parallel to the sexual immorality which had engulfed his life. His mind was groping upwards for light, but his will was still mired in the mud of sin. The climactic point of this journey, when both tendencies within him would at last clash violently, came at around the age of thirty-two. It was then that the struggle which would determine his eternal fate—and whether or not he would become a light for all subsequent generations of Christians or simply disappear into darkness—broke into a raging interior inferno. After listening to the sermons of the great Saint Ambrose and after reading the letters of Saint Paul, there could be no more doubt in his mind that in the Catholic Church alone would he find the truth he had always sought. It was clear to him now that Jesus Christ was his heart’s true desire and yet he was powerless to break the chains of lust which had shut that same heart up in a prison of vice. He was too sincere in the face of truth to think that he could ever come to life in Christ without a willingness to die to grave sin. War and Liberation The final battle which would decide the war for his soul followed upon a discussion with his friends about some illustrious Romans who had left everything behind to follow Christ. (Now the presence of good friends was beginning to right the wrongs of youth.) Seized with a holy desire to follow the example of the saints, and yet unable to do so because of his attachment to lust, an emotional Augustine stormed out of the house into the garden. Seeking out a place of solitude, he allowed the tears of regret and inner frustration to finally flow freely. They were to prove cleansing tears. The moment had at last come when he was ready to let go. He consented to release his grip on sin for good. No sooner had this holy spiritual desire overcome his inordinate desire for physical pleasure than he heard a child’s voice singing repeatedly, “Take and read.” He interpreted this as a command from Almighty God placed upon the lips of babes. Rushing back to the house to take up the book of Saint Paul’s letters which he had left on the table, he told himself that he would accept whatever words his eyes first fell upon as an expression of the will of God for his life. This was what he read, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13-14) Triumph Along with these words of Sacred Scripture, supernatural light was infused into his soul. Only moments after truly desiring to be delivered for the first time ever, deliverance was now his. The chains which had fettered his will for so long, subjecting it to the tempestuous rule of the passions, had been smashed to pieces by the grace of Christ the Liberator. His tormented soul was permitted to enter instantly into joy, peace, and the freedom of the children of God. In that momentous hour for the whole Church, the man once enslaved to lust through the unfortunate company kept as a youth had died and one of the most influential saints of all time had suddenly come to life. Looking back years later, it was hard for the saint to believe that he could have ever allowed such paltry trifles to hold him back from the Lord and the ecstatic joys that would be given him in Christ. He had been like one clinging desperately to worthless trinkets while priceless treasure was held out to him. The Protestant scholar R.C. Sproul sums up the consensus of all Christians about the monumental importance of what happened on that day, “If there is any giant that stands out in the history of the Church as the man upon whose shoulders the whole history of theology stands, it is a man by the name of Aurelius Augustine, Saint Augustine.”
Want to be in the loop?
Get the latest updates from Tidings!