Sunday, December 19, 2010
Musings on the Mass - The Sign of the Cross
When I was in high school I had a group of friends who were all former Catholics who had become "Born Again" Christians. They were constantly trying to "convert" me; it was great practice for my apologetic skills. I mention this because one day they questioned why Catholics make the Sign of the Cross when they pray. They asked me what we would do if Jesus were hanged instead of crucified, would we imitate putting a noose around our necks to pray. Of course what I struggled to answer then, is a very easy answer now. I don't believe there is anything accidental or incidental about the way Christ died.
The Cross was the perfect symbol of who Christ was, and what he was accomplishing while he hung for three long hours of suffering before his death. The mystery of the Incarnation means that Jesus Christ was both God and man, completely God and completely man, not something in between, not half of one and half of the other, but completely both, joined together in a perfect union. Our Tradition sees in the Cross a symbol of that union, the vertical bar of the Cross representing the divine nature of Christ, and the horizontal bar representing the humanity of Christ. But it is more than that! Christ became incarnate, that he might redeem us from our sins, atone for the price of Adam's original sin, and reconcile us with our God from whom we had become separated through Original Sin and personal sin. The Cross is symbolic of Christ's redemptive work as well, the union of divine and human. As Christ was crucified at the centre of the Cross, he was reuniting humanity with God, uniting the vertical and the horizontal.
For the practising Catholic, tracing the sign of the cross on oneself is almost second nature, it is something almost as natural as breathing. In the third chapter of De Corona, a book by Tertullian (one of the Fathers of the Church), he states "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign". This book was written in 204, attesting to the long tradition of Christians making this sign. Of course, today it is not made on the forehead, but traced from forehead to breast, from left shoulder to right shoulder.
As we trace the cross upon ourselves we are acknowledging publicly the sign of our salvation (cf. Galatians 6:14), and we show forth our desire to unite ourselves to our Lord's saving death on the cross (cf. Colossians 1:24). A thought I'd like to offer though, is the fact that as we trace the Sign of the Cross on ourselves, we acknowledge our own dual nature, we acknowledge the fact that we human beings are incarnate spirits, that our complete nature is body and spirit. There is a great temptation today to think of ourselves just in the spiritual sense, that when we die our spirit is freed somehow from this prison called a body, and consequently what we do to our body really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. The truth however, is that we are indeed body and spirit, joined together to make the complete person, and the Sign of the Cross we trace on ourselves reminds us of that fact.
When we begin the Sign of the Cross, we touch our forehead then over our heart to make the vertical arm. The vertical arm represents the divine, the spiritual, as we have already said. What are the two functions of the spirit, to know and to love, mind and heart, isn't that what we are connecting by this gesture? What about the horizontal arm, the physical dimension, this is traced on our shoulders. Think about how much the shoulders represent our incarnate dimension, we shoulder a burden, we offer a shoulder to cry on when we offer comfort, when we are feeling good and confident our shoulders are upright, when we tired our shoulders stoop and hunch over. As we make the Sign of the Cross upon ourselves to begin our prayer, we are acknowledging our dual nature, spirit and body, and we unite our whole selves to the saving work of Christ on the cross, reconciling humanity with God.