Every once in a while, during a sports competition, someone will make a sign of the cross. It could be after a touchdown or before a gymnastics routine at the Olympics. At such times, my husband usually announces, “They must be Catholic!”
Making a sign of the cross is definitely a Catholic custom, but is it only done by Catholics? Is my husband’s assumption always correct? I wondered about that and did a bit of research. I came across a Christian site where a non-Catholic wondered why other Christians don’t make the sign of the cross.
“I’ve been aware since I was little that Catholics will ‘cross’ themselves. Early on I felt like I shouldn’t copy it as it always had been portrayed in TV/film as something ritualistic or superstitious. But now that I understand some of the Catholic’s reasoning, I’m wondering if there is any doctrine in Protestantism that addresses why you shouldn’t do it, or is it simply because we don’t want to imitate Catholicism?”
“Lutherans make the sign of the cross,” one person wrote. “There is no prohibition as a Protestant, yet, we are commanded to pray in the Name of Jesus, but not that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Consequently, a reasonable conclusion to draw is that if we are commanded to pray in the name of Jesus and not in any other name, including that of the Father and the Spirit. Had God wanted us to pray in the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit in addition to the name of Jesus, it seems He would have mentioned that when He told us to pray in the name of Jesus.”
Is it Biblical?
In light of this, why do Catholics make the sign of the cross? Have we changed the very teaching of Jesus? Not according to what else I found.
The sign of the cross is tied to baptism and is a reminder of all that we believe in union with what the Bible teaches. Jesus told the apostles:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
It seems that marking our body with the cross started during the earliest times of Christianity. It is believed to have been inspired by a passage in the book of Ezekiel where it says,
And the LORD said to him: “Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it.” (Ezekiel 9:4)
According to Tertullian, a Christian author who lived from 155 AD to 220 AD:
We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross. In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.
What the Church Teaches
Catholics believe we are saved by Jesus and while it is true that we are less likely than Protestants to end a prayer by saying, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” making the sign of the cross does not contradict that fact. I actually often do say those words if I am praying with Protestants because I really am praying in the name of Jesus and understand that it’s a unifying way for us to pray. But there’s something about making the sign of the cross that brings me comfort and makes me feel closer to God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties. (2157)
Crossing ourselves is both reminder of the price Jesus paid for our sins and an outward sign of our faith. It is also a prayer by itself. Nothing about that is superstitious. When I’ve seen someone making the sign of the cross, my impression has always been that it actually means something to them, and it certainly means something to me when I see it.
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 of Tours)
Copyright 2020 Patti Maguire Armstrong