20 July 2011

Meditations on Liturgy: The Sign of the Cross

Morning prayer always starts with the sign of the cross. Forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder.

* * *

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.


Kati patrianoceu said...

Thank you so much for this... I grew up protestant but spend a lot of time in liturgical churches. I generally feel like I'd be pretending I'd 'converted' to their church if I started doing the cross so I don't, and although I love their church I never made that official. But your blog is the first time I've seen an explanation from the perspective of a non-Catholic/Orthodox/etc, and it's very helpful!

emily wierenga said...

sarah, this is a beautiful post, but i also love how it teaches me... i love what the sign of the cross symbolizes. bless you.

Jenn said...

What a beautiful claim on something that holds meaning to you. I've never thought of the sign of the cross in that way….I love the vast uniqueness in the expressions we can use to express our relationship to the cross.

Heather said...

Chris and I joined an Anglican church several years ago because we find grace and beauty in the liturgy in this way.

Beautifully expressed.

terri said...

this was so beautiful sarah. i grew up catholic and converted to a protestant church when i was just 14 so i had some built-in baggage to all-things-catholic for many years. it's only been in the last 8 years or so that i've begun to appreciate (for the first time, really) the beauty and benefit of liturgy. and the sign of the cross...i love how that involves my body in prayer. thanks for sharing this.

christianne said...

Oh, I loved reading this, Sarah. Kirk and I have been visiting an episcopal church around the corner from our house on and off these last five years, and recently we have become much more intent in our attendance, incorporating it on a weekly basis into our routine in a way it hasn't been before.

We both really love it, and we both wonder on almost a weekly basis if we will formally become members. I have slowly, slowly been learning the liturgy with each visit we make, but there is still so much I don't understand. For that reason, I really appreciated the educational nature of this post.

I'm going to love this series, I can tell. It's heartfelt, honest, and true. Love to you in this place, and thank you for sharing pieces of your faith with us.

kirsten said...

I loved this, too. Life is sacramental and so should our worship be. One of my favorite things about being Catholic is finding such a beautiful marriage of the spiritual and physical: holy water, the sign of the cross, the Eucharist. Until I became Catholic, I didn't recognize that I had been missing that before.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Julie@OnePennyJumblePacket said...

I really enjoyed your post. I grew up in a non-liturgical church, so we never did that. But I like how you expressed what it means to you, and how it is an act of worship that involves your body. That's quite wonderful!