The Sign of the Cross

by

Cross along walking trail, “Abbo’s Alley,” University of the South, Sewanee, TN (photo by author)

 

Daily Office readings for the Feast of the Holy Cross, September 14, 2018:

AM Psalm 66;

Numbers 21:4-9;

John 3:11-17

PM Psalm 118;

Genesis 3:1-15;

1 Peter 3:17-22

 

Although early Christianity relied on many symbols, some secret at first, the cross was the one that most universally took hold, whether it’s a Jerusalem cross, a Celtic cross, a Tau cross, a crucifix, or a simple plain cross.  One of the finds in the excavation of Pompeii (which was buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE) was evidence of a home altar where a cross-shape item likely hung, apparently removed from the wall. (Did the residents of that home take it when they fled?)  

 

What’s even more fascinating is that ever since the earliest days of the Christian faith, people have wanted to incorporate the cross–the instrument of torture upon which Christ died–on their own bodies somehow.  In the United States, crosses are probably the most popular jewelry item sold, and very likely the most requested tattoo design. Perhaps the most universal way people incorporate the cross onto their own bodies is by making the sign of the cross.  The sign of the cross is almost as old as the symbol itself. Tertullian wrote in the early 200’s about Christians using this gesture as a sign of devotion.

 

In the 21st century, however, making the sign of the cross can, oddly, open the door to a wide variety of misinterpretation.  Often, the person doing it is assumed to be Roman Catholic–yet it is practiced by a wide variety of denominations who believe in the concept of a universal Church.  It’s often perceived to be a superstitious gesture akin to saying “Bread and butter” when you and your walking partner are separated by a lamppost.

 

The reality is, though, that when we cross ourselves, we open ourselves up not only for prayer, but we open ourselves up for being a prayer.  We have placed a symbol of Jesus in front of our bodies so we can, in a way, “see” whom we follow.  We have created a symbol of Jesus through movement and feel its shape through our kinesthetic perception.  We have declared the power of our baptism not simply as a saver of our own soul, but of the salvation of the world.  In the three motions we make after touching our forehead, we affirm our belief in the Holy Trinity. Both our Old Testament reading and our Gospel reading today talk about Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on a pole, in the wilderness.  When we make the sign of the cross, we are lifting Jesus up to heal a broken world. Perhaps most importantly, by making this symbol in front of us before we take our next step, we are opening up the rest of our day to the idea that God sanctifies the world–not just our steps, but the air we breathe and the places we will go during the day.  

 

If you are already in the habit of making the sign of the cross, take a few extra seconds over the next few days to simply use it to make room for a bit of prayer.  If you are not in the habit, give it a try for a few days and pay attention to what you notice in your own body, or in your next step, or in the world right in front of your own nose.  Making the sign of the cross begs a larger question–how are we called leave the sign of the cross on the bits and pieces of our day, as evidence of Christ’s love and as a sign that “Jesus is here”?

 

Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri . She presently serves as Interim Assistant Priest at two churches, Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country, MO, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Manchester, MO, as they explore a shared ministry model.

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

A relative latecomer to TEC (from a more Protestant upbringing) I deduced that making the sign of the cross was an "artifact" of Roman Catholicism and therefore, perfunctory. Time spent in enough Anglo-Catholic parishes brought me to a different understanding. Crossing myself is not a gesture (sign) of piety, it's a kinetic device (like bowing or kneeling) for bringing my bodily senses closer to the divine.

In recent years, I've taken this gesture one step further. I have adopted the ancient form of making the cross: forehead, torso, right shoulder and then left shoulder. The entire Church used this form until the 12th century when, for some reason, the Western church chose to revise the form. (Left shoulder first, followed by the right.)

The ancient form has been maintained in the Eastern and Orthodox rites. My conscious decision to follow this form is two fold: It's a symbolic gesture for unity in the Christian diaspora and---it feels most natural to me.

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Scott Elliott
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Scott Elliott

'Making the sign of the cross begs a larger question–how are we called leave the sign of the cross on the bits and pieces of our day, as evidence of Christ’s love and as a sign that “Jesus is here”?'

NO! Making the sign of the cross RAISES the question!

"Begging the question" is the fallacy of assuming the answer, and if the author had intended to suggest that making the sign of the cross assumes the answer which making the sign raises, this would have been a much different essay and it probably should not have been published,

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