* * *
I first made the sign of the cross when I started going to an Episcopal church during my last year of college. It was something I'd been afraid of, something Roman Catholic and, therefore, something sketchy. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to believe it did something magical to me or if, on the other hand, it meant nothing at all but was a ritual carried over from more superstitious days.
And so I didn't do it. For months, I participated in the liturgy but didn't cross myself. I wondered if anyone noticed and what they thought of me, or if they were all being properly devotional and so unaware of things happening outside the realm of their own souls. During that time, I got to know some of those people who crossed themselves, and they seemed normal to me. Sane, everyday, properly Christian people who came to church on Sunday and made the sign of the cross.
I don't remember who finally asked the question, but I was there when the priest answered it. "What does the sign of the cross mean?"
And he told us, then, that it was many things. Most common among these was a reminder of salvation. Making the sign of the cross said, "I believe in what Jesus did on the cross. I believe that I needed that, and that he did it for me."
Well, I could sign up for that one. Certainly, the cross had always been central in my understanding of the Christian faith. And, quite frankly, making the sign on my body seemed to be doing more about the cross than what I'd seen from many Christians.
But the priest went on. "Many use the sign of the cross to claim truths that are spoken during the liturgy. They use it to say 'This belongs to me, too.'" Thus, many make the sign of the cross when references are made to the name of Jesus (to claim his death and resurrection as their own), or when the words comment on the resurrection of the dead (to say that they will be among those who rise).
When I heard that, I began making free use of the sign during my liturgical practices. Making it seemed like an act of faith, or at least a reinforcement to faith, saying, "I believe this. No matter how I feel this morning, no matter how improbable it sounds, this is what I choose to believe in this moment, this morning."
* * *
I don't attend a liturgical church anymore. I still find my spiritual home in the words and phrases I said during that time, though, and in the sacraments and symbols I learned to love during my time at that church. And so I still cross myself, even in my current evangelical setting, I make the sign on my body when we talk about (or sing about) things that I want and need to claim as my own.
I suppose people are watching me do it (I support this claim with the fact that a number of them have mentioned it to me, over the years), and I know they don't always understand. I hesitate, sometimes, because I don't want my practices to be confusing to others or to keep them at a distance.
At the same time, the sign of the cross has become something meaningful for me. It's my way of saying, "This isn't just an abstract idea, but something that I need." Jesus acted for me, and I want to remember that.
And so, when given the option to open my prayers with the cross, I do it. The prayers before me aren't, after all, just words on a page, but something that I intend to pray from the center of myself. I can't always fulfill that intention. I get distracted, the baby cries, my anxieties and thoughts about the day take over. But I can always intend it, and so I begin with the sign of the cross.