Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory . . . (Psalm 115:1)
My earliest recollection of seeing anyone make the sign of the cross was when I watched Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Of course, as a Jew, I never thought much about the practice. I figured it was a “Catholic” thing. And besides, Jews prayed differently. So when as a young adult I discovered my Messiah, Jesus, I prayed to Him in the only way I knew to pray: eyes closed, and just talk to Him.
But when I became a Catholic thirty-three years later, I started my prayers with the sign of the cross because, well, that’s what Catholics do.
In those days as a new Catholic, I traced the cross over my chest. I did it slowly. Thoughtfully. Reverently. I focused on each Person of the Trinity as I prayed, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I knew during that short introductory prayer I was entering into the presence of Almighty God – the One who created me, who nurtured me, who protected me, and who sent His Son to die on a cross that I might live with Him forever.
But like with many rituals, in time I fell into a pattern of thoughtlessness. I became comfortable with the movement of my right hand from my forehead to my abdomen, to my left shoulder, then to my right. Without realizing it, I began mouthing the Names of the Persons within the Holy Trinity without thinking about Whose I was and to Whom I belonged. I made the sign without reverence. Or purpose.
The prayer became perfunctory.
Of course, ‘perfunctory’ is not really that surprising an outcome when we do things over and over. It is a danger everyone faces, regardless of the church they attend. But while the danger of ‘routine’ is an important topic for all Christians, it is not the point of this essay.
Christians have been prayerfully making the sign of the cross for two thousand years. Tertullian, a 2nd century theologian and apologist, wrote: "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of 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 foreheads with the sign of the cross." In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote similarly of the sign: "Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest."
Clearly, tracing the cross over ourselves as a mark of reverence for God has two millennia of historical precedent. So why did I, for more than thirty years as a Protestant, avoid making that sign during my prayers? For two reasons: First, I did not know its long and precious history. And second – and most troubling to me – I did not make the sign because it was too “Catholic.”
What kind of a reason is that? To follow that line of logic, I should have also avoided prayer, or obeying Scripture, or attending church, or singing hymns because all of those things were also done by Catholics. For me to do likewise would make me – what? Catholic?
Worse things could happen.
Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian history knows it was the Catholic Church that defined and preserved for us the canon of Scriptures. It was the early Catholic Church councils that defined and defended essential doctrinal truths such as the trinity, the deity of the Lord Jesus, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Christianity would be unrecognizable today were it not for the various Catholic Church Councils’ protection and preservation of Biblical doctrine.
I am sometimes overwhelmed when I think of how my prejudice against Catholics and Catholic rituals robbed me of something that has now become precious to my relationship with Christ.
Oh, Lord! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, continue to open my eyes – to open our eyes – to your eternal truth.