Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Sign of the Cross as Parenthesis

The Cross is the symbol of the Christian faith: when we see a cross, we remember the Paschal Mystery, we remember how God became man and died and rose for us so that we could be raised to eternal life with Him, to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:4).  While seeing or meditating on a cross, or especially a crucifix, is one way to bring to mind the Paschal Mystery, the most common way we do so is through the Sign of the Cross.  When we mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, we remember that "we were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).

(As a sidebar before going further, each lung of the Church has a different method of making the Sign of the Cross, and each has its own symbolism.  In the West, the hand is open when crossing oneself: the five fingers spread out represent the five wounds of Christ.  In the East, the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers are touching, and the other two fingers touch the palm: the three fingers pointing up represent the three Persons of the Trinity, and the two fingers pointing down represent the two natures of Jesus Christ, the human and the divine, and this downward direction represents how the Son of God descended from heaven and "emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil 2:7).  Also, in the West, the left shoulder is touched first, and in the East, the right shoulder is touched: I do not remember the reason for this, though it was explained to me once.)

Possibly the most frequent use of the Sign of the Cross is in beginning and ending prayers.  Short prayers, such as grace before meals or a prayer before starting a class, almost always begin and end with the Sign of the Cross, and the liturgy does as well (all liturgies: the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Liturgies in the Eastern Churches, and all others (if any do not, I humbly apologize for my presumption on this point)).  In a sense, then, the Sign of the Cross functions as a parenthesis, opening and closing prayer.  The remembrance of the Paschal Mystery that it brings enters us into a prayerful state of mind, thus "disengaging" us from the world.

(As another sidebar, the Sign of the Cross does not always have this parenthesis usage: during liturgies, it is often used frequently.  The Extraordinary Form of the Mass includes over 50 Signs of the Cross made by the priest, if I remember correctly, and even the Liturgy of the Hours has an extra Sign of the Cross when the Gospel canticle is prayed.  In these usages, the Sign of the Cross functions as either a blessing or as a marker of the importance of a part of the prayer.)

All of this is just background information for one interesting suggestion I heard from a catechist recently: when opening a class in prayer, do not have a second Sign of the Cross at the end of the opening prayer; likewise, when ending the class, do not begin the ending prayer with a Sign of the Cross, but only end it with one.  The purpose of this is to make the entire class a prayer by enclosing it in the parentheses of the Sign of the Cross.  Building from this suggestion, the idea came to mind of making the whole day a prayer by enclosing it in the parentheses of the Cross, that is, opening the day with a Sign of the Cross upon waking and closing the day with it upon going to bed.  To take the parenthesis analogy further, different parts of the day could be marked off as deeper times of prayer within the larger prayer of the day using the typical opening and closing with the Sign of the Cross: thus the Mass would be a deeper prayer within the entire prayer of the day.  This is just one suggestion, and it may be completely ignored: I just wished to offer this as another way to live out St. Paul's exhortation "Pray unceasingly" (1 Thess 5:17). 

To conclude, I offer a few words from St. Cyprian of Carthage on the Sign of the Cross:

"In the...Sign of the Cross is all virtue and power...In this Sign of the Cross is salvation for all who are marked on their foreheads."

I humbly offer this post in the hope that some good may come of it for you, my readers.  Thank you for your patronage, and God Bless.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Inspiration for this post came from Kevin Bailey, M.A., who gave the suggestion of making an entire class a prayer through the use of the Sign of the Cross as "parentheses."  The quote from St. Cyprian came from Dr. Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper, p. 43.  The video is from the YouTube channel DominicanAllSaints.  I did not make the video, and if the creators wish me to remove it, I will gladly do so.

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