Reverend Father, I have some questions about the Sign of the Cross:
1) Why do we “make the Sign of the Cross”? We do it several times a day (before praying, entering the church, beginning of the holy mass, blessing, and more). We have been used to it since we were children and it is therefore almost automatic.
2) What is the meaning? Is it right or wrong to consider the gesture as a sign of openness (= I open the door to leave the world and enter into contact with God)?
3) Is it known since when it was introduced into daily practice?
Thank you for your always illuminating answers and God bless you.
Answer from the priest
1. It is the symbol of Christ and it imprints our belonging to Jesus the Savior like a seal.
It is the sign of the Christian.
It is the first sign we receive on the forehead at the beginning of the rite of Baptism.
With the sign of the cross we are baptized: in fact the infusion of water is done through three signs of the cross.
Therefore, making the sign of the cross equals to a profession of faith.
St. Augustine writes: “If we say to a catechumen, Do you believe in Christ, he answers, I believe, and signs himself” (Tract. in Joan. 11,3).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “The sign of the cross, on the threshold of the celebration, marks with the imprint of Christ the one who is going to belong to him and signifies the grace of the redemption Christ won for us by his cross” (CCC 1235).
2. By the cross Christ redeemed us, took us away from the dominion of the devil, overcame him and began to cast him out.
That is why St. Thomas says that it is the triumphal sign of Christ’s victory over the demons.
It is therefore opportunely done to overcome demons, in particular during exorcism actions and to ward off temptations and calamities.
The CCC says that “the sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties” (CCC 2157).
3. Since Christ bought all the graces we need at a high price by the cross, the Church pours out His blessings (His outpourings of gifts and graces) by the sign of the cross.
St. Leo the Great says that “Your cross is the fount of all blessings, the source of all graces” (Serm. 59,7). So blessing is the same as making a sign of the cross and saying a prayer.
Generally the sign of the cross is accompanied with the words “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
For this reason “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” (CCC 2157).
4. So, the three main meanings of the sign of the cross are: declaration of belonging to Christ, perpetuation of our redemption and ward off demons and calamities, source of graces and blessings.
5. It is difficult to say exactly when it was introduced.
It is certainly known that, around the year 200, the sign of the cross was in use throughout the Church and it was done on the most disparate occasions.
Origen writes: [tr.] “The Old Testament teaches that the letter Thau (rf. Ez 9,4 [“X” in some editions]) is a representation of the cross and an anticipation of this sign, which among Christians is drawn on the forehead and which the faithful do before any work, and especially in beginning prayers and holy readings” (rf. Monum. Eccl. liturgica, 1369).
And Tertullian (we are near the end of the second century): [tr.] “At every beginning, at every movement, and when you enter or leave, when you dress, when you wash, when you sit at the table, or when you light the lamps, or go to bed; when you sit, and on every occasion mark your forehead with the sign of the cross” (rf. Monum. Eccl. liturgica, 1809).
6. Already in that period the sign of the cross was used as an essential rite for confirmation, and it soon took its own place in all liturgical rites.
St. Augustine writes: “For unless that sign be applied, whether it be to the foreheads of believers, or to the very water out of which they are regenerated, or to the oil with which they receive the anointing chrism, or to the sacrifice that nourishes them, none of them is properly administered … by the cross of Christ, which the wicked made, every good thing is sealed to us” (Tract. in Joan. 118,5).
7. In the early days it was the “small” sign of the cross drawn with a finger (rarely with several fingers) of the right hand in the form of T or +.
In the Middle Ages, after the ninth century at least, this sign was made (and things were blessed) using three fingers in honor of the Trinity.
Impossible to say exactly in which era the “great” sign of the cross dates back to: it was used during the 11th century, at least as a private devotion.
I bless you now from afar with the sign of the cross to remove every adversity from you and fill you with every good.
I also assure my prayers for you.