|Bert Ghezzi on the Meaning Behind the Ancient Gesture
LAKE MARY, Florida, 22 NOV. 2004 (ZENIT)
The simple gesture that
Catholics make thousands of times in their lives has a deeper meaning
most of them don't realize.
Now, the multifaceted significance of the sign of the cross has been
investigated and explained by Bert Ghezzi, author of "Sign of the Cross:
Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer" (Loyola Press).
He told ZENIT how the sign came about, what six meanings it has and why
making it reverently can enhance one's life in Christ.
Q: When did the sign of the cross originate?
Ghezzi: The sign of the cross is a very ancient practice and prayer. We
don't have any indication of it in Scripture, but St. Basil in the
fourth century said that we learned the sign from the time of the
apostles and that it was administered in baptisms. Some scholars
interpret St. Paul's saying that he bears the marks of Christ on his
body, in Galatians 6:17, as his referring to the sign of the cross.
In the book, I note that the sign originates close to Jesus' time and
goes back to the ancient Church. Christians received it in baptism; the
celebrant signed them and claimed them for Christ.
Q: How did it become such an important liturgical and devotional
Ghezzi: I speculate that when adult Christians were baptized, they made
the sign of the cross that claimed them for Christ on their forehead
Tertullian said that Christians at all times should mark their foreheads
with the sign of the cross. I can imagine that Christians would make a
little sign of the cross with their thumb and forefinger on their
foreheads, to remind themselves that they were living a life for Christ.
Q: Beyond the words themselves, what does the sign mean? Why is it a
mark of discipleship?
Ghezzi: The sign means a lot of things. In the book, I describe six
meanings, with and without words. The sign of the cross is: a confession
of faith; a renewal of baptism; a mark of discipleship; an acceptance of
suffering; a defense against the devil; and a victory over
When you make the sign, you are professing a mini version of the creed
you are professing your belief in the Father, and in the Son and in the
Holy Spirit. When you say the words and pray in someone's name you are
declaring their presence and coming into their presence
that's how a name is used in Scripture.
As a sacramental, it's a renewal of the sacrament of baptism; when you
make it you say again, in effect, "I died with Christ and rose to new
life." The sign of the cross in baptism is like a Christian
circumcision, which united Gentile converts to the Jewish nation. The
sign links you to the body of Christ, and when you make it you remember
your joining to the body with Christ as the head.
The sign of the cross is a mark of discipleship. Jesus says in Luke
9:23, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up
his cross daily, and follow me." The word that the Fathers of the Church
used for the sign of the cross is a Greek word that is the same as what
a slave owner put on a slave, a shepherd put on a sheep and a general
put on a soldier
it's a declaration that I belong to Christ.
Self-denial is not just giving up little things; to be a disciple you
are under Christ's leadership and you don't belong to yourself. By doing
the sign of the cross, you're saying to the Lord, "I want to obey you; I
belong to you. You direct all my decisions. I will always be obedient to
God's law, Christ's teachings and the Church."
When suffering comes, the sign of the cross is a sign of acceptance.
It's remembering that Jesus became a man and suffered for us and that we
participate in Christ's suffering. The sign of the cross says, "I am
willing to embrace suffering to share in Christ's suffering."
When you're suffering, when you're feeling like God is not there, the
sign of the cross brings him there and declares his presence whether you
feel it. It is a way of acknowledging him at that time of trial.
One of the main teachings of the early Church Fathers is that the sign
of the cross is a declaration of defense against the devil. When you
sign yourself, you are declaring to the devil, "Hands off. I belong to
Christ; he is my protection." It's both an offensive and defensive tool.
I've found that the sign of the cross is a way to put to death
those big problems we have, the stubborn things we can't get rid of. The
Church Fathers say if you are angry, full of lust, fearful, emotional or
grappling with fleshly problems, make the sign when tempted and it will
help dispel the problem.
I began to make it to gain control with a problem with anger. Signing
myself is a way of destroying the anger, putting on patient behavior,
imitating Jesus' practice of virtue.
Q: Do non-Catholics use the sign of the cross?
Ghezzi: Yes, the sign of the cross is used by Episcopalians, Lutherans,
Methodists and Presbyterians, particularly in baptisms. In his small
catechism, Martin Luther recommends making the sign of the cross at
bedtime and first thing in the morning.
It's a shame that many non-Catholics see it as something they shouldn't
be doing; it comes from an ancient Church that we all share. One of my
hopes in writing this book is that non-Catholics will read it and share
in the sign of the cross.
Q: Why do Catholics use the sign of the cross with holy water upon
entering and exiting a church?
Ghezzi: In order to participate in the great sacrifice of the Mass, you
need to be baptized. Using holy water to sign yourself is saying "I am a
baptized Christian and I am authorized to participate in this
When you make the sign of the cross when you leave, you say that the
Mass never ends
your whole life is participating in Christ's sacrifice.
Q: Why should Christians learn more about this prayer?
Ghezzi: I think that it's not something to be taken casually. The sign
of the cross has enormous power as a sacramental; it does not cause the
spiritual thing it signifies but draws on the prayer of the Church to
affect us in our lives. The sign of the cross is the supreme
When I see professional athletes make the sign of the cross during
games, I'm not critical of them. It says that everything I do, I do in
the name of Christ
even games can be played in the presence of God.
When people make the sign of the cross casually, I pray that they will
recognize how serious it is
that they are declaring that they belong to Christ, they want to obey
him and accept suffering. It's not a good-luck charm.
Q: Why is the sign of the cross significant today, especially in areas
where laws are becoming less tolerant of public displays of faith?
Ghezzi: They can tell us that we can't have the Ten Commandments in a
public building, but they can't stop us from making the sign of the
cross publicly. We need to remember what Jesus said: If we are ashamed
of him, he'll be ashamed of us.
We should feel confident in letting people know that we are Christians
and that we belong to Christ. ZE04112221