One of the things I really like about how God ordered this world is precisely how unassuming some of the greatest things He has worked really are to the passer by. If you didn’t look, you wouldn’t notice. It’s so easy to take them for granted until you look with the eyes of faith that can see the literary and invisible aspects. For instance, the people living in Palestine 2000 years ago only saw a guy, an ordinary guy from a not so remarkable city. Only those who saw the literary and frankly romantic drama of God become man could realize what was in front of them. To those who refused to see beyond the literal, Our Lord said they “had no faith” and in a remarkable phrase in the Gospel, He could not do miracles there. (Matt. vi 4-6) Faith in what? Faith that the literary drama in front of them, that God was in front of them in what appeared to be an ordinary guy. That’s God… Moses was changed forever for merely being near God, and God wanted to be with us to save us, so he comes in a form so ordinary that people can take Him for granted!
The same is true today in the Sacraments — ordinary and unassuming things have the power of God in person, really present. God is omnipotent. To see ordinary bread somebody could take a literal view and have no faith that that bread was God. To those people, the result is no different than it was when Jesus was visible in living flesh to them — it will be recorded that God could not do miracles for them. Yet, as Fr. Hardon was apt to teach, for those of us who, with eyes of faith, see the literary expression of the Sacrament, and believe that (1) God became man in living flesh; and, (2) having risen from the dead, that living flesh is physically present in what appears to be merely bread and ordinary wine, Jesus is prepared to do miracles far greater than those in the Gospels. It is a feature of the Catholic faith not found elsewhere — the little ordinary things have been turned into awesome vehicles of God’s full presence and power!
It is no different with sacramentals. Sacramentals are, according to the Catholic Dictionary by Fr. Hardon, “Objects or actions the Church uses after the manner of the sacraments, in order to achieve through the merits of the faithful certain effects, mainly of a spiritual nature.” There is more to the definition, but that sentence is packed with a lot. There’s a fair restatement of that sentence to say that a sacramental is an action used by the Church to cause a spiritual effect. Spiritual Powers tools, second only to the sacraments. Awesome. Who doesn’t like power tools?
There is another part of the definition we need to consider: the efficacy or power of the sacramental “depends not on the rite itself [...] but on the influence of the prayerful petition; that of the person who uses them, and of the Church in approving their practice.” So, simplifying: A sacramental that has been approved by the Church is a spiritual power tool that is as powerful as long as you believe. It sounds a lot like believing in Jesus and His sacraments — you can look at them with a literal viewpoint and they will be useless. On the other hand, you can use your eyes of faith, see the design of God, and His dramatic literary way of making ordinary things into some of the most glorious instruments of power, and you’re on the way to miracles, impossible happenings, awesome events, and life in the supernatural. It’s really that easy. Let’s pick up the chief power tool, the Sign of the Cross.
This sacramental is the chief! The sign of the cross is quintessential to Catholic life. The Catholic Catechism by Fr. John A. Hardon (Image pub., 1981) says on page 552, “[...] action sacramentals are of the essence of Catholic devotional practice. Genuflecting and kneeling (I discuss both of these at length in Englishing the Liturgy), making the sign of the cross over oneself or another person or some object, bowing the head and sprinkling with holy water — all are commonplace. They testify to the faith that inspires them and, on Church’s authority, carry with them the promise of God’s help.” Fr. Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary adds, “the first of the Church’s sacramentals, it has its origins in apostolic times.”
The sign of the cross was practiced by the Apostles, taught to us by the Apostles, and has been, before anything else, a distinct sign of Catholics. The early Christians made continual use of the sign of the cross. Tertullian (a.d. 240) says, “At the beginning and during the performance of all that we do, when we go in and out of the house, when we dress ourselves, when we lie down to rest, in fact in everything, we mark ourselves on the forehead with the sign of the cross.” It’s not a new invention – in fact, the Sign of the Cross is ours — the distinct and easy to take for granted sign of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
The sign of the cross is no empty ceremony, but it is of itself a blessing, and a prayer for a blessing from God. The sign of the cross chases away the devil and his temptations. As the dog fears the whip with which he has been beaten, so the evil one dreads the sign of the cross, for it reminds him of the holy cross by which he was vanquished on Calvary. Old stories speak of a stag which bore between its antlers a tablet on which was written in golden letters the words, “I belong to the emperor, hurt me not.” Nobody ventured to shoot or harm this stag. It is the same when we make the sign of the cross, we bear the inscription, “I belong to Jesus Christ,” and this protects us from our enemy. In past wars, no one one would dare injure those who wore a band of white on their arm because it indicated that they were physicians, or nurses, or ministers of religion. Likewise, the devil does not dare attack those who are signed with the holy sign of the cross. “The sign of the cross,” says St. John Damascene,” is a seal, at the sight of which the destroying angel passes on, and does us no harm.”
Speaking of the sign of the Cross, my trusty old Catechism Explained (Benzinger Bros. 1920) states:
The Catholic makes confession of his faith most especially by the sign of the holy cross.
By it he lets men know that he makes profession of belonging to the religion of the crucified Saviour. To Jews and Turks the cross is an object of hatred and contempt; Protestants, too, pay no honor to the holy cross, though there are indeed some of them who, in the present day, have learned the practice from the children of the Church. The sign of the cross is thus the peculiar property of Catholics all the world over. It is a custom so ancient that it is generally believed to have been introduced by the apostles.
The Baltimore Catechism No. 2 aptly expressed the prominence of the Sign of the Cross, in questions 487-489 (section on prayer)
A little trivia — the first two questions and answers appear at 212 and 213 of Baltimore Catechism No. 1.
487. How do we usually begin and end our prayers? We usually begin and end our prayers with the sign of the cross.
488. Why do we make the sign of the cross? We make the sign of the cross to express two important mysteries of the Christian religion, the Blessed Trinity and the Redemption.
489. How are these mysteries expressed in the sign of the cross?
When we say “In the name,” we express the truth that there is only one God; when we say “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we express the truth that there are three distinct Persons in God; and when we make the form of the cross on ourselves, we express the truth that the Son of God, made man, redeemed us by His death on the cross.
It speaks for itself — Catholics begin and end prayer by making the sign of the cross. My apologies to everyone who grew up Catholic and remembers having a parent grab their hand and move it around as they taught us to make the sign of the cross, but I’d like to pile some more expression from catechisms before I get to the shock.
Again, in The Catechism Explained (Clarke, Benzinger Bros. 1890, 1920), it reads: “We should often make the sign of the cross, especially when we rise in the morning and when we retire to rest, before and after our prayers, before and after our meals, whenever we are tempted to sin, and when we have any important duty to perform.” There is that insistance on frequency — that’s a lot! But more importantly, “before and after our prayers.”
Even the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) itself says, at paragraphs 2157 and 2166 that the Catholic begins his prayers and activities with the Sign of the Cross.
Not only have I sought to impress on you that you need to use this power tool, I’ve wanted to show that every catechism around says the same thing: begin and end your prayers with the Sign of the Cross — it is powerful!
You might say, based on the literary realities and spiritual power of this sacramental blessed by the Church throughout her entire history, it is to Catholics what the communicator was to Star Trek! But, not pleased with a mere communicator, the sign of the cross is the phaser, too! A phaser because it drives away devils. And given that it invokes the name of the Triune God, it’s a Bat Signal!
Make the Sign of the Cross! Make it everywhere! Make one now! Thanks be to God!
That’s the orthopraxis of Catholics — Catholics make the sign of the cross.
Suffering the Ignorance.
Now that we’ve surveyed the sign of the cross in Catholic tradition and teaching, we move on to today. One of the worst aspects of our times is that the best intentioned and well meaning Catholics are woefully ignorant of some of the most simple matters of practicing the Catholic faith. While it is painfully apparent in so many contexts, it hits the hardest when certain sacred things, especially those few things so central, but yet so easy to take for granted, to the Catholic faith, are not relayed everywhere possible.
I am going to use an example of what I mean. Mark Shea, the popular blogger and writer on things Catholic, appeared on the Journey Home sometime ago, around 1998. During the course of the show, Mark and Marcus were discussing prayer and Mark said something to the effect that Catholics mistakenly believe that they must begin their prayers with the sign of the cross, that it was like a star trek communicator. And they laughed and Mark went on to describe mental prayer from his nascent Catholic viewpoint, informed by his protestant roots. What he was saying was technically correct: you can engage Our Lord in conversation at any time — He is God and wants to hear from us always. The problem was that he was apparently ignorant of why the sign of the cross really is the star trek communicator! It is the power tool of the spiritual life!
I can’t blame Mark for not knowing. After all, who knows who taught him, and he didn’t grow up learning these things. As I mentioned in Englishing the Liturgy, and in a discussion in What Really Killed the Church, one reason he wouldn’t know because cultural traditions which would have informed him are dead — they’ve been slain by AmChurch. Even the Mass, during which the faithful used to make 54 (fifty-four) signs of the cross, has been reduced to a mere three or so, if that. (People are too busy doing their own thing, it seems). So it’s not like Mark would have seen and realized that Catholics that start and end prayer really do have a star trek communicator handed down to us from the Apostles in the form of the sign of the cross. How could he?
Had he been aware of that rich Catholic tradition at that time, I bet he would have said it all differently. What struck me at the time was that a recent protestant was on television preaching how to pray to a Catholic audience that probably didn’t know any better than what he was saying. People watching could have reasonably walked away thinking the sign of the cross wasn’t a star trek communicator and they didn’t get a good representation of it there. The reality is the sign of the cross is the principal aid in recollecting the mind to God in order to pray! There is irony here, too, in so far as it is a typical protestant criticism of Catholics that they pray to saints while protestants only pray to Jesus. I’ve always been of the mind that Catholics pray first to God because they call upon him at the start of everything with the sign of the cross.
It’s been 15 years or so, and Mark has learned and read a lot more since then, so I’m sure he’d approach the situation differently today, but I can distinctly recall seeing this discussion because it made me livid at that time because what he said was the exact opposite of what was so basic a Catholic tradition! Shea is a fan of Chesterton and has surely the same delight of that line in Orthodoxy wherein Chesterton states: “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” One tradition that nearly every Catholic ever in the Church has voted on and approved is the sign of the cross — it is chief! Mark’s comment at that time was merely a convenient example of a greater trend in the American Church, however.
Over the years, I’ve lived in several places and been around a lot and been part of a vast variety of parishes and places. I’ve encountered again and again this neo-Catholic problem wherein well-intentioned people try teaching orthopraxis to others, and hold themselves out as an example. The problem is that they are ignorant and they do not convey the literary traditions of our faith, let alone reliable statements of traditional orthopraxy. It’s a shame. I believe it happens mostly because these ignorants have a vacuum caused by no ethnic traditions to inform them, and then church in America has shed off so many of these little things, that these do-gooders fill the vacuum with their preferences of selection made from the messy buffet left by the now dying progressive Spirit of Vatican II. Consider that the Mass alone used to have 54 signs of the cross made by the faithful who participated. Today, there’s hardly three or four. So, rather than learn what was done before, people hold hands and congratulate each other instead of using the power tools of prayer: signs of the cross, geneflecting to Our Lord at holy communion, bowing one’s head at the mention of the name of Jesus, and others. Likewise, there’s this “pop-culture” of a substitute orthopraxy that tends to filter among the chaff of the ignorant practices of today, instead of learning some traditions.
The worst part is how people get mad and ignore the tradition — it’s almost as if the rebellious spirit of Vatican II progressives has now taken hold in the conservative pop-cultured right. Even worse, no matter which way you try to introduce traditional ideas, they don’t seem to care, seeing such things as arcane and not relevant today! It’s the same attitude of the Vatican II progressives, but from crowds of people who say they love the Church and want prayer. It’s very strange.
The situation is not made any better by the American Bishops through the USCCB conference, which continually splits the middle between the vacuous practices of the masses and compromise. For instance, genuflecting is the sign of reverence in the Roman Church, yet, the Bishops decided it was best to introduce the “head bob” you see people make today. I can’t blame those people — that’s what they are told to do — it’s not traditional orthopraxis, though. For her history, Roman rite Catholics genuflect. They makes numerous signs of the Cross. The Roman priest makes the Orans (not the people). We can go on for years on this subject alone.
In the end, that really is the beauty of these little ordinary looking things in the Church, however — they don’t impose themselves with grandiosity. You have to believe in order to see the supernatural glory they hold in such humble wrappers. Perhaps it is better this way because it makes it easier to see what is going on.
For me, I’ll still make my sign of the cross, knowing that it is a star trek communicator, a powerful blast against evil, and something very pleasing to Our Lord. I’m not into this nouveau AmChurch thing of jumping around, wearing logos made of stylized sacred things, or talking with a fake vocabulary invented to sell products — rather, I’ll just stick to those little unassuming ordinary things that make us Catholic. That’s where the real excitement is!
The following is from the Catechism Explained (1920):
IX. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS.
1. In making the sign of the cross we make profession of the most important of all the mysteries of our holy religion, viz., the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity and of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
By uniting all the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, under one name, we make profession of our belief in the unity of God.
The ” name ” of God indicates His authority and power, and that we act under His commission (Mark xvi. 17; Acts iii. 16, 17; iv. 10).
In making the sign of the cross, we make profession of our belief in the Blessed Trinity by the words ” In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
In making the sign of the cross, by the very form of the cross which we make upon ourselves, we make profession that the Son of God died for us upon the cross.
Thus we see that in the sign of the cross we have a short summary of the whole Catholic faith. The Catholic Church holds the sign of the cross in great honor. It is repeated over and over again in holy Mass, in all the sacraments, in all blessings and consecrations ; the cross is placed on our churches, over our altars, on banners, on sacred vestments, and over the graves of the departed. Churches are built in the form of a cross.
2. By means of the sign of the cross we obtain a blessing from God ; and especially by it are we protected from the assaults of the devil and from all dangers both to body and to soul.
The sign of the cross is no empty ceremony, but it is of itself a blessing, and a prayer for a blessing from God. The sign of the cross chases away the devil and his temptations; as the dog fears the whip with which he has been beaten, so the evil one dreads the sign of the cross, for it reminds him of the holy cross by which he was vanquished on Calvary. There was once a stag which bore between its antlers a tablet on which were written in golden letters the words, “I belong to the emperor, hurt me not.” No huntsman ventured to shoot this stag. So whenever we make the sign of the cross, we bear the inscription, “I belong to Jesus Christ,” and this protects us from our enemy, the devil. In war no one ventures to injure those who wear on their arm a band of white to indicate that they are physicians, or nurses, or ministers of religion; so the devil does not dare attack those who are signed with the holy sign of the cross. “The sign of the cross,” says St. John Damascene,” is a seal, at the sight of which the destroying angel passes on, and does us no harm.” The brazen serpent fastened on a pole in the desert was an image of the cross of Christ (Numb. xxi.; John iii. 14), and protected all who looked upon it from being bitten by the fiery serpents; so the sign of the cross recalls to our minds the cross of Christ, and. protects us from the snares of that old serpent, the devil. In the year 312, Constantine the Great, with his whole army, saw a cross of light in the sky, and upon it the words : ” In this sign thou shalt conquer.” These words are also true of the sign of the cross. “Even to remember the cross of Christ,” says St. Augustine, “puts our hellish foe to flight, and give us strength to resist his temptations.” Many of the saints used to make the sign of the cross whenever any evil thoughts assailed them. In the times of persecution the heathen gods often fell prostrate to the ground at the sign of the cross. On the occasion of the finding of the holy cross by St. Helena, a woman who was blind was restored to sight by merely touching it. The sign of the cross often frees men from bodily evils also. Many of the holy mar- tyrs, on making the sign of the cross, felt no more pain in their tor- ments. St. John the Divine once had a cup with a poisoned draught put into his hand to drink. He made the sign of the cross over it, and then drank it without receiving any harm from it. Something similar happened also to St. Benedict. In the Old Testament we find an allu- sion to the sign of the cross in the letter Thau, mentioned by the prophet Ezechiel. God sent destruction upon the inhabitants of Jeru- salem on account of the abominations committed there; but an angel was previously commanded to mark the sign Thau upon the foreheads of all those who mourned and lamented on account of the sins of the city (Ezech. ix. 4-6).
We should often make the sign of the cross, especially when we rise in the morning and when we retire to rest, before and after our prayers, before and after our meals, whenever we are tempted to sin, and when we have any important duty to perform.
We should make the sign of the cross in the morning in order to obtain the blessing of God on the day; in the evening to ask for His protection during the night; before all important undertakings, that they may turn out well; before our prayers, in order that we may not be distracted in saying them, etc. The early Christians made continual use of the sign of the cross. Tertullian (a.d. 240) says, “At the beginning and during the performance of all that we do, when we go in and out of the house, when we dress ourselves, when we lie down to rest, in fact in everything, we mark ourselves on the forehead with the sign of the cross.” The sign of the cross should also be made during holy Mass; at the beginning, at the absolution which the priest gives at the foot of the altar, at the Gospel, at the Consecration, and at the priest’s blessing at the end of Mass. St. Edith, the daughter of the King of England, often made the sign of the cross with her thumb upon her forehead; thirteen years after her death her thumb remained quite incorrupt. Each time we make the sign of the cross with contrite hearts, we gain an indulgence of fifty davs (Pius IX., July 28, 1863).
When we make the sign of the cross, we should, if possible, make it with holy water.
Holy water has a special power to defend us against all attacks of the devil. When we make the sign of the cross with holy water, we gain each time an indulgence of one hundred days (Pius IX., March 23, 1876). Holy water is placed at the doors of our churches, and should be placed at the door of our rooms. We must never be ashamed of the sign of the cross, lest Christ be ashamed of us. The devil rejoices when he sees any one neglect to make the sign of the cross, for he knows that the cross is his destruction and a sign of victory over his temptation.