February 18, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Sign of the cross reminds us we need God

When an infant is presented for baptism according to the Catholic ritual, the celebrant says “[John or Mary], the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name, I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents and godparents to do the same.”

After baptism, a practicing Catholic makes the sign of the cross thousands of times over the years.

As we enter a church, we sign ourselves with the holy water blessed at Easter as a reminder of our baptism, the most important event of our lives. Do we think about this?

We sign ourselves when we are given a blessing by the priest at Mass, or in the other sacraments or on other occasions. Do we realize the blessing comes from God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Most of us sign ourselves as we begin and conclude our daily prayers. Do we realize this very sign is an act of faith?

I make the sign of the cross on takeoff and landing in airplanes. Do we realize that the sign of the cross is an expression of our humble need for God?

Most of us sign ourselves with the cross at mealtime. Some follow the practice of making the sign of the cross as they pass a Catholic Church in acknowledgement of the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

In the ritual of Ash Wednesday, we were given ashes in the sign of the cross that publicly marked us as Catholics.

The sign of the cross certainly identifies us as Catholics. We notice it in a restaurant or, for example, if an athlete signs himself before a free throw or as he takes his turn at bat.

I remember my surprise as I observed the burial ritual for President Ronald Reagan in California. Nearly half of the young and older mourners who paid their respects at the coffin signed themselves with the cross. While many times the sign of the cross may be made without a lot of thought—we do it so often—it nonetheless speaks of a commitment in faith. And it is a good habit to embrace.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, during the Lenten season, it could be more intentionally a sign that we want to join ourselves to Christ in his journey toward Calvary to his death and victory on the cross. It is a fruitful meditation to think about the meaning of the cross in the mystery of our salvation. Christ’s victory on the cross turned what had been a sign of ignominy—the instrument of the criminal death penalty—into a sign of pride in our Christian faith. Obviously, the cross represented anything but a perfunctory ritual for Christ in his torturous death for us.

Lent is a good time to recall consciously and gratefully that we were claimed for Christ with the sign of the cross at our baptism. Let’s pray with more fervor about the meaning of the words of Christ in the Gospel, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He intends something more than accepting the symbolic ritual, valuable as that is.

Being marked with the sign of the cross encourages us to intend that our sufferings, the reversals in life, perhaps our illnesses, the disappointments big or small, the inconveniences of living with others, even the fasting and intended and unintended mortifications that come our way during these 40 days will be joined to the cross of Christ. Joining our crosses to his makes at least some sense of our suffering. No life escapes suffering.

Being marked with the cross during Lent might well imply a renewed commitment to help Jesus carry the cross to Calvary by helping neighbors in need of help to carry their crosses. Reflecting on the mission of Jesus, surely no one should be impelled to carry their sufferings alone.

The sign of the cross, which claimed us for Christ, is a very public sign that marks each of us as equal in dignity—men and women, children and adults, people of all races and cultures, rich and poor, the especially gifted and the less gifted. We all have been created in the image of God. And, besides, Christ died on the cross for every one of us.

Bearing the cross in everyday life is a public sign that we enter into the paschal mystery with the confident faith that for every one of us there is the kingdom where every tear shall be wiped away. We believe in the victory of the cross and look forward to the glory of Easter.

May Christ give us the Lenten grace to embrace his cross with cheerful pride. †  

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