At the beginning of every mass and almost every prayer,
Catholics make the sign of the cross. We touch our foreheads, our heart, and our two shoulders (far one first). It has become something of habit for almost every Catholic before we can even talk. So why do we do that?
The first mention we have the “sign of the cross” dates back to 230 AD where those to be baptized were marked with the “sign of the cross.” The idea of marking our bodies with a sign from God actually goes back to our Jewish roots. Many Jews, when entering into prayer, would wear little rolls of paper with the words of scripture in little boxes. These would have straps that they would literally wear the words of Sacred Scripture on their person as a preparation to pray to God. This was following Deuteronomy 6:4-8 which says that one should “Bind [these words] at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead.” These are called phylacteries.
For us, as Catholics, we do not physically bind the words of Scripture to our person, because the sign of the cross was marked on our souls at Baptism. Our souls have the mark of Christ “written” on them for all eternity, and it can never be erased. So, as an outward reminder to us of what has happened to our souls, we make the sign of the cross as we begin and end prayer. Thus, it is fitting that we should begin every mass, the height of prayer, with the sign of the cross.
If it does help, I often recommend that people think about where the sign of the cross is “placed” when we make it. First, when we touch our heads, we are asking the cross of Christ to be in our minds and thoughts. Second, when we touch our hearts, we are asking the cross of Christ to be in our souls. And then when we touch our shoulders, we are asking the cross of Christ to be in our actions.
Let us be a people who make the Sign of the Cross with seriousness, reverence, and let us allow the Sign of the Cross to help change our lives to be like Jesus Christ.
Fr. Nels Gjengdahl