The sign of the Cross (1)

Extracts from The sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church (1892)

After the discovery of the true Cross in the year 326 by St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, that monarch issued a decree forbidding the Cross to be used thereafter in the execution of criminals. From that time the veneration which the Christians had shown it in secret from the beginning received a fresh impulse; and since that auspicious day nothing is more characteristic of the followers of Christ than the veneration they entertain for the sacred instrument of man’s redemption.

As a religious symbol, the sign of the Cross is a sacramental, and the principal one in use among Christians. As made upon the person it is formed in three different ways. 

That in use in the early ages of the Church was small, and was made with the thumb of the right hand, most commonly on the forehead; but it was also made on any part of the body. The constant use of the sign of the Cross by the first Christians, and, much more, the fact that they were surrounded by heathens to whom the sacred sign would have betrayed their faith and put them in danger of persecution, or would have exposed the sign itself to mockery, rendered it necessary for them to make it in such a manner as not to be observed. 

Next, there is the triple sign, made with the thumb on the forehead, the mouth, and the breast. At present this form is used more commonly by the Germans than, perhaps, by any other people. It is also prescribed in the Mass at the beginning of each of the gospels, but nowhere else in the liturgy. 

Lastly, the sign of the Cross by excellence is that which is made by putting the right hand to the forehead, then under the breast, then to the left and to the right shoulder. The sign of the Cross shall be considered from two points of view: as used by the faithful in their devotions, and as employed in the sacred functions of religion.

The devotion of the early Christians to the sign of the Cross was extraordinary, and it attests the power they found to dwell in that sacred emblem. St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, cries out, “O Lord, Thou hast bequeathed to us three imperishable things: the chalice of Thy blood, the sign of the Cross, and the example of Thy sufferings!” Tertullian bears witness to the frequent use of the sign of the Cross by the Christians of the second century: “At every motion, and every step,” he says, “entering in or going out, when dressing, bathing, going to meals, lighting the lamps, sleeping, or sitting, whatever we do, or whithersoever we go, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the Cross.” 

St Basil writes, “To make the sign of the Cross over those who place their hope in Jesus Christ is the first and best known thing among us.” Not to mention others, St Gaudentius says, “Let the sign of the Cross be continually made on the heart, on the mouth, on the forehead, at table, at the bath, in bed, coming in and going out, in joy and sadness, sitting, standing, speaking, walking — in short, in all our actions. Let us make it on our breasts and all our members, that we may be entirely covered with this invincible armour of Christians.” 

The writings of the Fathers abound in similar passages; but the following from St John Chrysostom is worthy of the prince of Christian orators:

“More precious than the universe, the Cross glitters on the diadems of emperors. Everywhere it is present to my view. I find it among princes and subjects, men and women, virgins and married people, slaves and freemen. All continually trace it on the noblest part of the body, the forehead, where it shines like a column of glory. At the sacred table, it is there; in the ordination of priests, it is there; in the mystic Supper of Our Saviour, it is there. It is drawn on every part of the Horizon — on the tops of houses, on public places, in inhabited parts and in deserts; on roads, on mountains, in woods, on hills, on the sea, on the masts of ships, on islands, on windows, over doors, on the necks of Christians, on beds, on garments, books, arms, and banquet couches, in feasts, on gold and silver vessels, on precious stones, on the pictures of the apartments. It is made over sick animals, over those possessed by the demon; in war, in peace, by day, by night, in pleasant reunions and in penitential assemblies. It is who shall seek first the protection of this admirable sign. What is there surprising in this? The sign of the Cross is the type of our deliverance, the monument of the liberation of mankind, the souvenir of the forbearance of Our Lord. When you make it, remember what has been given for your ransom, and you will be the slave of no one. Make it, then, not only with your fingers, but with your faith. If you thus engrave it on your forehead, no impure spirit will dare to stand before you. He sees the blade with which he has been wounded, the sword with which he has received his death-blow.”

It was with good reason that the early Christians paid so great reverence to the sign of the Cross. They had learned from experience that it is the symbol of power; as St Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “This sign is a powerful protection. It is gratuitous, because of the poor; easy, because of the weak; a benefit from God, the standard of the faithful, the terror of demons.” 

Armed with this sacred sign, the martyrs went forth to battle with the wild beasts of the amphitheatre; walked calmly to the stake to be burned; bowed their necks to the sword, or exposed their bodies to the lash. They braved the terrors of the dungeon, or went willingly into exile. Even tender virgins and children defied the power of the tyrant, and suffered death in its most terrible forms, while thousands sought the lonely deserts to practise a life-long penance, with no companions but the wild beasts, sustained and encouraged by the same never-failing source of supernatural strength.

By the same sign the saints have wrought innumerable miracles. It is related of St Bernard, to mention no others, that he restored sight to more than thirty blind persons by virtue of the sign of man’s redemption. “Such is the power of the sign of the Cross,” says Origen, “that if we place it before our eyes, if we keep it faithfully in our heart, neither concupiscence, nor voluptuousness, nor anger can resist it; at its appearance the whole army of the flesh and sin takes to flight.”

The sign of the Cross is also a source of knowledge. The form of words uttered in making it, together with the action that accompanies them, teaches the principal mysteries of religion. The words “in the name”, instead of “the names”, express the fundamental truth of the unity of God; while the mention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost declares that in this one God there are three Persons, and thus teaches the mystery of the Adorable Trinity. The Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Our Saviour are recalled by the form of the Cross traced with the hand. No formula could be more comprehensive and, at the same time, more simple.

The sign of the Cross is no less a prayer. It is an appeal to Heaven, made in the name of Him who in submission to the will of His Father “humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross”; of Him who declared that, “if you ask the Father any thing in My name He will give it you”. Hence Christians have learned to begin and end their devotions with the sign of the Cross, to render their petitions more acceptable at the throne of grace.

But especially is the sign of the Cross a shield and safeguard against the temptations and dangers that threaten the life of the soul. The Fathers of the Church have insisted very strongly on this point.

Prudentius instructs the Christians of his day in these words: “When, at the call of sleep, you go to your chaste couch, make the sign of the Cross on your forehead and heart. The Cross will preserve you from all sin; before it will fly the powers of darkness; the soul, sanctified by this sign, cannot waver.” 

St Chrysostom continues in the same strain, “Do you feel your heart inflamed? Make the sign of the Cross on your breast, and your anger will be dissipated like smoke.” 

And St Maximus of Turin, “It is from the sign of the Cross we must expect the cure of all our wounds. If the venom of avarice be diffused through our veins, let us make the sign of the Cross, and the venom will be expelled. If the scorpion of voluptuousness sting us, let us have recourse to the same means, and we shall be healed. If grossly terrestrial thoughts seek to defile us, let us again have recourse to the sign of the Cross, and we shall live the divine life.”

St Bernard adds, “Who is the man so completely master of his thoughts as never to have impure ones? But it is necessary to repress their attacks immediately, that we may vanquish the enemy where he hoped to triumph. The infallible means of success is to make the sign of the Cross.”

St Gregory of Tours says, “Whatever may be the temptations that oppress us, we must repulse them. For this end we should make, not carelessly, but carefully, the sign of the Cross, either on our forehead or on our breast.”

St Gregory Nazianzen thus defied the demon: “If you dare to attack me at the moment of my death, beware; for I shall put you shamefully to flight by the sign of the Cross.”

Says St Cyril of Jerusalem, “Let us make the sign of the Cross boldly and courageously. When the demons see it they are reminded of the Crucified; they take to flight; they hide themselves and leave us.”

Origen continues, “Let us bear on our foreheads the immortal standard. The sight of it makes the demons tremble. They who fear not the gilded capitols tremble at the sign of the Cross.”

St Augustine answers for the Western Church in these words: “It is with the symbol and sign of the Cross that we must march to meet the enemy. Clothed with this armour, the Christian will easily triumph over this proud and ancient tyrant. The Cross is sufficient to cause all the machinations of the spirit of darkness to perish.”

St Jerome, the illustrious hermit of Bethlehem, expresses his confidence in the Cross in these terms: “The sign of the Cross is a buckler which shields us from the burning arrows of the demon.”

Finally, Lactantius remarks:

“Whoever wishes to know the power of the sign of the Cross has only to consider how formidable it is to the demons. When adjured in the name of Jesus Christ, it forces them to leave the bodies of the possessed. What is there in this to wonder at? When the Son of God was on earth, with one word He put the demons to flight, and restored peace and health to their unfortunate victims. Today His disciples expel those same unclean spirits in the name of their Master and by the sign of the Cross.”