I remember well my primary one school teacher showing us how to make the sign of the Cross. Having an Irish mother, I was already adept! For both women, it was like they were teaching you how to talk or to walk; something very basic and important, sacred and venerable. Having been born myself on a Good Friday, it somehow told me who I was, a matter of life and death – more than I could ever then know.
My first word to you as your parish priest was to say the Name of Jesus Christ. He is my programme. He is the only programme. With St. Paul, “the only knowledge I claim to have is of Jesus Christ crucified.” I raise above you, as it were, once more the Sign of the Cross and renew the call to you to live under it, for it is your life and security. As we sing on Good Friday, “Faithful Cross above all others, one and only noble Tree. None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be.” Let its shadow always cover you for it is a shadow which gives light to the soul, wisdom to the mind and peace to the heart. Let its arms embrace you for they only draw you into the Heart of the God-man who died of love for you. Let the Crucified Lord fix your gaze, for he alone is your certain hope of eternal victory over death. Whatever wrong you might do, wherever you wander, no matter how far, come back to the Cross!
The Mass itself begins and ends with the Sign of the Cross and shapes its entire unfolding. For the Mass is but another way of making present in every place and time the saving death of Christ, just as he himself had anticipated his death in a ritual form at the Last Supper. During Mass, we sign ourselves three times with the Cross as we prepare to hear the Gospel, the heart of which is the Cross.
Firstly, we sign our foreheads to say that we are opening our minds to God’s word, God’s reasons, God’s concepts and way of thinking. In other words, the Cross opens our minds to what they were truly created for: eternal truth, to know God, ourselves and reality as God himself knows these. The Gospel opens our minds and enriches our human thinking with divine thinking. It cleanses them of the negative and false ways we look at ourselves and others. It uncovers and weeds out engrained lies in our thought processes. The Gospel of the Cross strengthens us to let go of self-destructive thinking and pours the light of divine wisdom into them to judge aright. Our foreheads were first marked with the cross on the day of our baptism. When making it, the person baptizing said: “I claim you for Christ our Saviour by the sign of his Cross.” Then, by the sign of the Cross on the forehead using chrism, the Bishop conferred on us the sacrament of confirmation. When we receive the sacrament of the sick, the same gesture is made. Think of Ash Wednesday and the ashen Cross on the forehead, reminding us that because of the Cross our final end is no longer dust and ashes, but the resurrection and the life.
Secondly, we sign our lips with the Cross so that our words may be worthy of the Crucified Christ, of his love, of his total outpouring of himself for our eternal joy. The Cross on our lips guards them from speaking words which sadden the Holy Spirit, which defile our own soul, which hurt and offend the person before us or the one who is absent. The Cross was first marked on our lips also on the day we were baptised, so when we cross our own lips at the Gospel we are brought back to what the minister of the sacrament said at that point: “The Lord Jesus made the dumb speak. May he touch your mouth to proclaim his faith to the praise and glory of God the Father.” We proclaim his faith by living it and, where possible, by speaking of the Gospel to others. The Gospel debunks the deceit into which human life so easily sinks.
Thirdly, we sign our breast with the sign of the Cross. Again, at baptism we were first signed this way with the oil of catechumens. Part of the prayer accompanying the anointing reads: “We pray for this child: set him (her) free from original sin, make him (her) a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her).” At the Gospel, then, we seek once more that the Truth of Christ will free us from the effects of sin and defend our bodies and spirits as temples of the Holy Spirit. The breast is the place of the heart. Crossing our hearts expresses a love for the crucified love Christ showed us, a desire that his love be the source of our love, be its power and its endurance. To use the astounding words of St. Paul, crossing the heart is to say: “I live no longer; Christ lives in me. I am crucified with Christ, dead to this mortal life and alive with his life.”
The other important sign of the Cross during Mass is made is by the priest over the bread and wine. He does this when he prays to God the Father to send the Holy Spirit to turn these into the risen body and blood of Christ. In his own inscrutable wisdom and power, God takes these simple things and, through the power of the Spirit, Christ in his priest once more makes present his saving death and resurrection for us. The enormity and holiness of this deed go beyond us. Before them we can only remain in awe and wonder, humble and grateful, deeply moved and more deeply comforted. The very separation of the bread and wine speaks to what happened on the Cross: the pouring out of Christ’s last drop of blood from his body: a sign of the utter totality of his gift of love to us and for us. And if we are in awe and wonder at that, what is to be said of holy communion? Here the words of the Good Friday hymn return: “none in fruit thy peer may be.” To be one with each and all of us in his glorified body is the peerless fruit which Christ offers to us. It is the pledge of our eternal destiny.
So, pick up again with renewed fervour your own personal practice of making the Sign of the Cross. Into confusion, it thrusts what’s essential. In temptation, it calls the Devil’s bluff. In difficulty, it unites you to the Crucified One. In preparing to leave home, it invokes Christ’s protection over you. In returning home, it renews your sense of his presence with you and your loved ones. In suffering, it brings deep peace. In all things, it reminds you of your baptism, of your sacred origin and sacred destiny, it brings you back to the Mass, to the Gospel, to the consecration and to the moment of Holy Communion. But alert when you make the sign of the Cross. It bears the peerless fruit. Don’t do it shabbily. Carry a small cross with you. Make a habit of touching it so that the memory of Christ’s love may well up within you. Parents, when you kiss them, bless your children on the forehead before they go out, when they come in, when they go to bed, and bless yourself and one another as you do so. Make the crucifix prominent in your home, as a reminder to you and as a witness to those who enter it. Above all, meditate in your heart and mind on the passion and Cross of the one who has loved you to death and loved you into eternal life.