Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Sign of the Cross

Josh Hearne and I have recently corresponded regarding the saying of the Night Office, "Compline." In getting down to the "nitty gritty" of the how and why of saying the offices, It occurs to me that many Christians don't have a clear idea of why so many other Christians "cross themselves" during prayer and worship. So here you go.

In both private prayer and public worship, Christians have for many centuries (since the early third) "blessed themselves" with the sign of the cross. In public, you might see folks doing this at the beginning of prayers and at the Gloria ("Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit..."). This has been part of my devotional practice for the last three years or so, and I can enumerate perhaps three reasons why.
  • Worship is physical as well as intellectual and emotional (we want to think holistically, remember?) and this is a physical remembrance that I am sealed by the Holy Spirit into the action and benefits of Christ's atonement. All the benefits of Christ's passion and death have been granted me, and in my life with him, I continue to appropriate and await the full benefit of his resurrection.
  • One ancient and helpful way of understanding the Trinity is the metaphor of divine dance: the divine persons indwell and encircle each other (Gk. "perichoresis") as different but united personalities. The Holy Spirit catches us up into this dance, and enables our participation in the life of this divine community. Among many other things, our prayers, and concretely this action, comprise our "steps" in the dance. Therefore, as my life is caught up in the eternal dance of the Holy Trinity, making the sign of the cross as acknowledgement of who I am and to whom I belong is one of the steps I make as we dance together.
  • Should I be in a Pentecostal exorcist kind of mood, it reminds me and any nearby demons that I am marked as Christ's own forever. But in all seriousness, in addition to bearing witness to my life in Christ, it is an invocation of the Holy Spirit, the ruach Yahweh, the very creating power and breath of God who sweeps in to re-create and renew the people of God. If I may be unnuanced, it's about summoning the power of God to bear upon one's own life.
So what do you make of that?


Bryan said...

Good stuff Kyle. There's a good article on The Sign of the Cross found here

+ Alan said...

I make that all those are fine reasons to do such a thing, but that nobody should need that much convincing. I mean, gee whiz, it should be fairly self-evident.

Yes, yes, I know how people are. They need some explaining. I'm up for it.

Bryan said...

Picking up what Alan said, I'm not sure how self-evident it really is for a lot of people--especially those coming from non-catholic backgrounds. I think a lot of folks I know just dismiss it as a "catholic thing" and never think about it more deeply than that.

Kyle said...

I consider this little piece an invitation rather than a defense.

Anonymous said...

My tradition never practiced "crossing" oneself as a sign of worship, but lately I've grown in my affinity for such a practice. I like doing it when I go to sleep, wake up, and before I do anything significant like take a test or perform on stage. It reminds me why I do the things I do, much the same way cross necklaces do for other people.

I don't wear a cross necklace. Not because I think there is anything wrong with it, but because it wouldn't be the same kind of reminder for me, just another thing I put on in the morning. People need reminders of who's they are, but they don't have to be all the same. Some of my other good friends post Scripture passages in their car and on their walls that they read several times a day. Again, this isn't something that works for me, but I think it's great that it does for some people. What seems "self-evident" for some people just seems counter intuitive for others.

Anyway, good stuff Kyle. I like these little positive reflections on Christian practice. They are encouraging to me and remind me of the deeper significance behind the things we do.

Kyle said...

J-Man, I think you're dead on about the importance of (appropriate!) acts of remembrance. It's the integrated, "every day" stuff that's so powerful in our formation and re-creation in the image of Jesus.

I was never one for posting scriptures, either, but I have developed an appreciation for icons.

Positive reflections is key. Telling people they need more formation is pointless if we can't help each other get formed.

Now I am going to post things on my car; specifically, a large note card with the words "KEEP RIGHT" on my steering wheel for the month of December.

Peter said...

Nice - I like it.

A couple of liturgical rules of thumb some might find helpful:

1. Make the sign of the cross when the Trinity is invoked.
2. In worship, when the celebrant makes the sign of the cross one can do so as well.
3. During the creed when one says, "I believe in the resurrection..." It's a way of saying this body will rise from the dead.
4. Many make the sign immediatelly before and immediately after receiving the blessed elements of communion. It helps one be in a good frame to receive the body and blood of Christ.

No hard and fast rules though -- the sign of the cross was made for man not man for the sign of the cross. :)

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was a symbol of the Trinity, but never really knew any of the details about it. As someone already stated, those of us coming from a non-Catholic background have probably not understood it or have dismissed it as Catholic. But now I can see the reason or meaning behind it all. There's a good point here.

Thanks Kyle. Peace to you.

Kyle said...

Thanks, Peter. That's a good point to remember!

I'm glad you found the post helpful, Tobias. Keep reading!

#Debi said...

I should do a post soon about what this practice means to me. I've been drawn to it since I was a teenager and still heathen. I especially like your analogy of participating in the divine dance. There's a centering, dance-like quality in crossing oneself, and even in seeing someone else do it. There's a similarity in feeling to the one I get when I see someone worshipping in sign language. It's harder to explain than I thought it would be... Anyway, thanks for the post. I'm gonna go read some of the links now.

Anonymous said...

what popery is this?!

Kyle said...

Of the most blatant, and dastardly variety, Mark. ;0)

I'm glad you liked the point, Debi.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that making the sign of the cross is important for many people, but the only thing i might have to question about it has to do with your second point: does one really need to make the sign of the cross to "acknowledge" who they are in Christ? Shouldn't they know that already?

Kyle said...

Ah, but there's the rub: I never said "need," and I carefully avoided any language of necessity or compulsion. The practice can be a helpful acknowledgment (and we always need to be reminded of who and whose we are, in some fashion) of our identity, and one of many ways of "participating in the dance."

There's a certain aspect of spiritual formation in this: it doesn't really "work" to tell people who they are in Christ, and send them off just "knowing" it's true as if that's going to make the difference. We need to act out what's true. This is one way of acting that out.

When I tell people I love them, or otherwise act that out, I don't think I'm telling them something they don't already know (at least I hope not!) but it's further experience of that truth.

Thanks for chiming in. Blessings on you.

Anonymous said...

very nicely put. thanks for the explanation, kyle.

+ simonas said...

You and + Alan got put on Jesus' Creed, Scot McKnight's post on the same topic. just a 'heads up'. I just liked your Pentecostal exorcist thing so much. :-)

+ simonas said...

oh, and I added my own bit: signing oneself with a cross is like giving the devil a finger...