BOUT fifteen years ago (which, for someone my age, is quite some time ago), a priest pointed out to me the inescapability of the Sign of the Cross in the form of Mass we now call the Extraordinary Form. The Sign of the Cross, of course, is not absent from any of the Church’s liturgies, but the prominence of this gesture in the Extraordinary Form often catches the attention of people who participate in such a Mass without much familiarity with it. Similarly, by comparison to the current Book of Blessings, the Sign of the Cross is much more omnipresent in the older Roman Ritual.
I’ve written elsewhere about the centrality of the Communion of Saints in the Extraordinary Form, and I think something parallel can be said for the Sign of the Cross.
From signing oneself at the Misereatur to the incensing of the gifts during the offertory to the pouring of water and wine into the chalice over the cross on its base, the Sign of the Cross is one of the most notable features of the ceremonial ritual of the Extraordinary Form.
Consider what St. Francis de Sales has to say about the manifold applications of this most basic Catholic prayer:
The Sign of the Cross . . . [is] a plea for God’s help. St. Jerome, writing to his spiritual daughter, said, “With every work, with all of your comings and goings, may your hand make the Sign of the Cross.”
St. Ephraim said, “Whether you sleep or wake, travel or work, eat or drink, sail on the sea or cross a river, cover yourself with this breastplate, clothe and encircle your limbs with the saving sign, and evils will not meet you.”
And Tertullian: “At every change of place and movement, every going out and coming in, when dressing, when putting on shoes, at the bath, at the table, when carrying a lamp, upon entering a room, and in every action that life requires, we touch our forehead with the Sign of the Cross.”
“Make this sign,” St. Cyril said, “eating, drinking, sitting, standing, going outside, walking, in sum: in all of your affairs.” And, elsewhere, “Have therefore no shame of confessing the crucifix, but with confidence let us impress the Sign of the Cross with our fingers upon our forehead, and may the Sign of the Cross be made in all things, eating, drinking, coming in, going out, before sleep, sitting, standing, doing, and remaining idle. For it is a great defense, which for the sake of the poor is given away freely, and for the sake of the weak is made without difficulty, this grace being from God, as the sign of the faithful and to bring fear to the devils.”
St. John Chrysostom: “The Cross shines everywhere, in places inhabited and uninhabited.”
St. Ambrose: “All of our works should be done with the Sign of the Cross.”
. . . Who does not know that prayer is the general and universal tool of Christians, proper to all of our affairs and works, for every encounter and all of the actions of our life? The Sign of the Cross, then, is nothing other than a brief and lively exterior prayer by which God is invoked, and, as a result, it is proper for all of our doings and plans. 1
HE NUMEROUS Signs of the Cross in the Extraordinary Form do not strike me as examples of the “useless repetitions” (repetitiones inutiles) which Sacrosanctum Concilium sought to avoid (SC, no. 34). The ubiquity of this prayerful gesture seems, rather, to be an utterly simple method of praising God and a beneficial means of instructing the faithful. It teaches us how to conform every thought, word, and deed to Christ.
May the Cross, the great Sign of our salvation, become an ever more central feature of our Catholic life and prayer!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 St. Francis de Sales, The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language, ed. and trans. Christopher O. Blum (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2013), 17–19.