The sign of the cross

During Mass last Sunday, our youngest server was desperately trying to make the sign of the cross with everyone else -but he could not get it quite right. Afterwards, I showed him how it was done. It’s best to keep it simple. In my time I have seen some very ornate flourishes. But simply taking the right hand from the forehead to the navel and then from the left of the chest to the right is dignified, discreet, and all that is needed.

I explained to him that the sign of the cross is Jesus’ sign and that it was put on him when he was baptised  The cross is his sign that he belongs, something like wearing a football scarf or school blazer is a sign of belonging. When we make the sign of the cross we are saying we belong to Jesus and to one another as Christians.

I do not think that any Christian should be reticent about making the sign of the cross for by so doing we are quietly proclaiming that we are Christians. S. Cyril of Jerusalem said,

“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, …. It is the Sign of the faithful”  

In today’s Gospel John tells us that Jesus said, ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ This is taken too literally by his opponents who think he is talking of destroying the Temple itself. We should always be wary of too literal a reading of the words of Our Lord, and immediately John says that he was actually talking of ‘the sanctuary that was his body, and when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this.’

Lent should be a time of returning to basics, of reminding ourselves of the stark realities of the life and death of our Lord. It is all too easy to sugar-coat, to surround with clever words and in so doing neutralise, to avoid taking on board the hideous enormity of the cross.

We should not avoid the horror of the cross but at the same time we hang on to the fact that God’s incomprehensible purpose was to triumph through that shocking, extreme form of capital punishment.  Through it he expressed his love for us and his desire to share eternal life with us.

Returning to making the sign of the cross: when the Gospel is announced it is customary to make the sign of the cross three times, with the right thumb  making small crosses on the forehead  on the lips and the chest.

This practice is saying that we want the Gospel to be in our mind, on our lips and in our heart. I cannot imagine that any Christian would deny that this is desirable. But we have to ask ourselves just how much do we let the Gospel through to our mind, our speech and our very core? Do we resist the full impact and pick and choose what we like and what we do not. One of our biggest temptations is to believe that our limited understanding is capable of deciding what we do and what we do not choose to accept.

Our Lord did not pick and choose. He submitted to the whole of his Father’s plan. Our faith is to be received as a whole and not negotiated clause by clause. As Our Lord took up his Cross, so are we called to take up ours. For each of us it will be different but we all have to face hardships. Do we shoulder the burden stoically and in faith?

I would commend to you using the sign of the cross because the physical action can help us internalise the broader implications. If making the sign of the cross helps us to feel that we belong to Jesus and to one another, if it helps us to have his Gospel in our thoughts and words and very being. If it becomes a very concrete reminder of the depths that God plumbed in order to save us and therefore a sign that we are loved and valued by God himself. If we can find God in this simple action, our Lent will not have been in vain, but it will rather have helped us grow in discipleship. It will have been a significant step in our personal journey to salvation.