Sign of the cross

Psalm 46, 87

1 Kings 8:22-30

Ephesians 2:11-22

2fingers.jpgSomething that often surprises a newcomer to the Episcopal Church is, that, on any given Sunday, well…there’s a whole lot of crossin’ goin’ on. It’s a reminder that Anglicanism holds both Catholic and Protestant tradition all in one place. Whether it’s the priest making the sign of the cross to the gathered faithful, or over the elements at their consecration, or those in the pews making big crosses on their chest at various times in the liturgy or small ones on their head, mouth, and heart prior to the reading of the Gospel, the sign of the Cross is a rich and visible part of our liturgy. So what’s up with all that crossin’?

Here’s a little about what we know about the sign of the Cross:

We know that the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Tau, has significance going clear back to Genesis 4, when God placed a mark on Cain, when Cain was exiled. The mark was to serve as protection from being killed. Even after all Cain did, the implication was that God still stated, “he’s mine.” Tau is used for “mark” in several places in the Hebrew scriptures.

Fast forward to the contemporary time Of Jesus and John the Baptist. Some evidence exists that the Essenes (a rather ascetic sect of Judaism at the time) welcomed new members into their community by tracing a Tau on their forehead. It’s been debated whether John the Baptist might have done a similar thing to the newly baptized. Speculative, to be sure, but it’s certainly plausible speculation.

What we do know, is that there was at least a tradition in Judaism regarding symbolically marking human beings with a visible sign or gesture. In the more Hellenized parts of the world, Greeks would have seen the gesture, and associated it with their letter Chi, an “X”. “Christ,” in Greek–Christos–Xpictoc, spelled in Greek letters–well, you know they would have noticed that “X” and those “X’s” people were making on each other, and it was probably just a natural progression to wanting to make those “X’s” on themselves somewhere in that story, to call to mind God’s divinity or God’s protection. Again, there’s a certain amount of speculation here–but at least by 211 CE, we have written evidence that it was common practice among Christians to cross themselves. Tertullian wrote that Christians seldom did anything significant without making the sign of the Cross.

Fast forward to today–what, then, are we to make of the sign of the Cross? Tradition? Superstition? Sociability? (“Everyone else in this place is doin’ it, so I guess I will too…”) Or is there a way we can incorporate real meaning to it?

This simple gesture has tremendous power when it comes to our memory banks. The sign of the cross is a reminder of the marker of our baptism. It’s made over our earthly remains at the funeral and over the spot of earth where we’re placed for eternity. It’s made over the spiritual food we receive in the Eucharist. It connects us to all the saints and apostles and martrys, reaching far into antiquity. In those times when we’re afraid, it can feel like God’s protection–or in our sadness that we’re loved. Even when we feel we’ve been as wicked as Cain, and those close to us are not terribly fond of us at the moment, that God still claims us as God’s own and won’t abandon us as we find our way out of the abyss.

When was a time that the sign of the cross mattered–really mattered to you? Where is a place that you can begin to incorporate the sign of the Cross–and its meaning–in your life in a new way?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

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