One of the most common and distinguishing practices of Roman Catholics is the sign of the cross. Surely, I must have addressed this practice after 5.5 years of blogging and 1844 posts, right? Wrong. I searched my archives and couldn’t find a single post dedicated to it. Okay, let’s finally examine the ubiquitous sign of the cross.
The Roman Catholic church considers the sign of the cross to be a “sacramental,” something not as powerful as a sacrament, but still very helpful. The church officially defines sacramentals as “holy things or actions of which the church makes use to obtain for us from God, through her intercession, spiritual and temporal favors.”
In making the sign of the cross, a Catholic touches the fingers of the right hand to the forehead, to the chest, and to both shoulders while saying or silently invoking the trinitarian formula: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The sign of the cross is a self-blessing. Catholics are taught that this self-blessing will accord to them favors and protections. Catholics will reflexively practice this ritual while attending mass or other Catholic religious services. It’s believed that using “holy water” blessed by a priest in conjunction with the sign of the cross will increase the blessings. Holy water fonts are strategically located near the doorways of Catholic churches and congregants routinely dip their fingers into the fonts and bless themselves as they enter and exit the church. Outside of church, it’s common for Catholics to perform the sign of the cross during difficult and threatening circumstances. Catholics believe the sign will protect them from evil spirits and danger. In that respect, the sign of the cross is a superstitious prop in the same manner as a pagan rabbit’s foot, charm, or juju. How many movies have you seen in which a Catholic character is in dangerous circumstances and unthinkingly makes the sign of the cross upon themselves?
The sign of the cross self-blessing has its origins in the early church. Church “fathers” Tertullian and Athanasius mention it in their writings. As the early church became increasingly institutionalized, the clergy class accorded to itself increasingly greater powers including the supposed abilities to administer the sacraments and to efficaciously bless people, objects, and events. We can piece together from the writings of the “fathers” that pastors/bishops began the practice of “blessing” their congregations by tracing the sign of the cross in the air while reciting the trinitarian formula. The lay congregants responded by blessing themselves in conjunction with the clergy’s blessing, the more crosses the better, and also blessed themselves on occasions when the clergy wasn’t present. What started out as a somewhat “innocent” practice was ritualized and devolved into rank superstition.
What are we to make of the sign of the cross self-blessing? There is no mention of the ritual in the New Testament. A symbol of the cross of Christ, whether material or traced in the air with the hand, has no special powers. Roman Catholicism has a myriad of other sacramentals besides the sign of the cross including physical crosses aka “crucifixes,” rosaries, statuary, scapulars, medals, candles, etc., etc. These are all facets of Catholicism’s false salvation system that’s ultimately based upon sacramental grace and merit. In contrast, Gospel Christians preach the genuine Good News! Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Jesus Christ is our Savior, Lord, and ever-present Shepherd. Born-again believers do not need sacramentals, which are superstitious pagan amulets by another name.
Catholic friend, come out of works-religion and superstition. Repent (turn from your sinful rebellion against God), trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith alone, and ask the Lord to lead you to an evangelical church in your area that preaches God’s Word without compromise.
Above: Former U.S. Speaker of the House and “devout” Roman Catholic, John Boehner, casually demonstrates the sign of the cross.
Sign of the cross – what is the meaning?