Almost everyone entering the church would make the Sign of the Cross. It’s a practice done almost unthinkingly.
But why do we do it? FATHER IGNATIUS YEO explains the origins and significance of this practice.
A sacramental act where body and mind are strengthened, healed
Christians began to Cross themselves as early as 200 AD by tracing a small cross on their foreheads. Over time, variant practices emerged as Christians began making larger crosses over items and themselves. History is silent on the origins of the sign of the cross as we know it today. Tertullian, a prolific early Christian author, wrote of this gesture: ‘We Christians wear on our foreheads the Sign of the Cross.” However, in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III explicitly directed authoritatively that the Sign of the Cross be made with three fingers – from the forehead to the breast and from the right to the left shoulder. By the 14th century, the Sign of the Cross began to be made in an inverted fashion from left to right to imitate the hand gesture of the priest.
Spirituality of the gesture
By signing ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, we attest to the two fundamental realities of our faith; our belief in the Trinitarian God and our redemption through the Cross.
Why with Holy Water?
Holy Water is a sacramental. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) no. 1667 teaches that a sacramental operates by means of the Church’s intercession – that is through the prayers of the Church. Therefore, by dipping one’s finger(s) of the right hand in the font with Holy Water and making the Sign of the Cross, through the prayers of the Church our intellect is enlightened, our wills are moved from evil while being prompted to do good; and both body and mind are thereby strengthened and healed. Although by its use, sanctifying grace is not conferred, actual grace is obtained. Sanctifying grace is the supernatural state of being infused by God, which permanently inheres in the soul, whereas actual grace is temporary supernatural intervention by God to enlighten the mind or strengthen the will to perform supernatural actions that will lead one’s soul to heaven.
The CCC further instructs about the need for a place within the church walls as remembrance of our rebirth in the life of grace. ‘The gathering of the People of God begins with Baptism; a church must have a place for the celebration of Baptism [baptistry] and for fostering remembrance of the baptismal promises (Holy Water font)” (CCC 1185). The practice of the use of Holy Water as one enters and leaves the church is largely not codified but a laudable sacramental act which can be traced back to 400 AD in ‘Constitutions of the Holy Apostles”. Thus according to the teachings of the fathers, as in the using of Holy water in one’s home, one is free to cross himself when he leaves the Church for the same reasons. This also adheres to Tertullian’s bidding that ‘in all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the Sign of the Cross.”
Therefore it is a laudable practice that in Catholic homes there should be a small Holy Water font that be used for this purpose as Saint Ephrem the Syrian wrote: ‘Mark all you do with the life giving Sign of the Cross, whether you are at home or going on a journey so that you may commence and end your day doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col 3:17).
Father Ignatius is a lecturer at the St Francis Xavier Seminary and CTIS, and parish priest at the Church of St Anthony.
This article was first published in The Catholic News on Sunday June 16, 2019.