Before Christ suffered thereon the cross was an accursed gibbet on which the vilest criminals were made to pay the severest penalty for their crimes, in a lingering and shameful death. Many typical actions and events in the history of God's chosen people had foreshadowed the fact that the cross was destined to become the instrument of man's salvation, and many of God's prophets, in mystic words, had foretold the same truth, but of all this the heathen were ignorant, and the Jews forgetful. Therefore, when the followers of Christ crucified at once adopted the sign of the Cross as a glorious badge and the symbol of their religion, the heathen, and the Jews who were still blind to the testimony of their sacred scriptures, regarded them as fools or madmen who, with the utmost folly, boasted of their shame. Nevertheless, despite the mockery of the heathen and the fierce hatred of the unbelieving Jews, Christians gloried in making use of the sign of the Cross on all occasions. And ever since then, during all the ages of the Christian era, both in times of violent persecution and in times of the greatest prosperity, the sign of the Cross, whether in substantial form, or delineated upon some surface, or traced by the hand, has been continuously in use among Christian people, and ever recognized as the special symbol of the Christian religion. At the present time, as in the past, both friends and foes readily acknowledge this fact. Ask any one who has ever heard of the Cross and knows anything about it. What does the Cross stand for, and what is its significance? And the answer, substantially in every instance, will be: The Cross is the symbol of the Catholic, i. e., the Christian religion. The pages of the New Testament Scriptures bear witness to the same truth. "The preaching of the Cross" is preaching "Christ crucified." This preaching and its practical application in a consistent Christian life, have ever been an offence to the world generally, even "the offence of the Cross." They who are thus offended, whether within or outside of the body of people who are called Christians, are reckoned by God's Word as "Enemies of the Cross of Christ;" and those who suffer in anyway through the opposition thus engendered, "suffer persecution for the Cross of Christ." Thus, whether in the common speech of men, or in the inspired words of the sacred Scriptures, the term "Cross" is a synonym for Christ and His religion.
The sign of the Cross is the glorious symbol of Christ and His religion. Nevertheless, as Christ Himself has at times been rejected and dishonoured even by some of His own followers as well as by heathen people, so also has His sign been treated with contumely. During the last four hundred years many people, as a part of their protest against much of the faith and practice of the vast majority of their fellows in the Church of God, have refused to allow the traditional use of an image of the Cross of Christ either upon or within their places of worship, and have condemned as superstitious, any and all devotional and ceremonial use of the manual sign of the Cross. Now from the standpoint of a calm and impartial observer this conduct of people who were willing to be called Christians and believed Christ to be their God and Saviour, must appear extraordinary and marvellous. For where, except among Christians, have any of the people professing any of the many and various religions in this world, rejected and dishonoured their accepted ensign or symbol, while claiming at the same time to be still true and loyal to the fundamental principles of their religion? Alas, that the single exception to this reasonable consistency should be found among the people who are called Christians!
It must be admitted that Protestant Christians have had cause for offence in many grave abuses of the image and sign of the Cross of Christ; yet abuses, however grievous, do not take away lawful use. As there is "woe to that man by whom the offence cometh," so also there is woe to him who, by taking offence, needlessly cuts himself off from some measure of fellowship with the great body of faithful people by rejecting a custom which the Church of God has always esteemed important for the spiritual welfare of her members.
The due and reverent use of the image and sign of the Cross is not, as some have taught, merely permissible and "entirely optional," but obligatory. This is always morally the case, and in some instances the obligation is also canonical. There is, indeed, freedom to use the sign, or the image of the Cross, privately as devotion may prompt, but to refuse to use either sign or image, in accord with the accustomed rules of common worship, is "openly to break with the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church,"5 and thus to disobey the common law of the Church Catholic which from the days of the Apostles has imposed upon Catholic Christians the moral obligation of confessing their faith by the use of the Sign of the Cross. [Art. of Rel. XXXIV.] In these days there may be times and occasions when it will be both wise and charitable to refrain from making the sign of the Cross publicly; but never to use the holy sign in public indicates either some error or deficiency in faith or else the cowardly weakness of a soul which is ashamed thus to confess Christ crucified.
They who use the sign of the Cross thereby pledge themselves to lead a life in agreement with the precepts of their crucified Master, and thus are most solemnly bound to take heed lest by open and wilful inconsistency they make the holy sign, "which should have been for their wealth, an occasion of falling," stumbling block to others, and a curse instead of a blessing to themselves.
Doubtless, in every instance whether in wilful omission or in wilful misuse, "the offence of the Cross" is fostered by the evil spirits, to whom the use of the holy sign at the hands of the faithful is a terror. Therefore the soldier of Christ does but give an advantage to his enemies when he neglects to use the weapon they dread and by which they may be conquered.
The personal act of making the sign of the Cross, by tracing its outline upon the forehead, is an exceedingly ancient and common custom among Christian people. Tertullian, a learned priest, whose testimony to facts is of the highest value, writing about the year of our Lord 201, mentions this usage as universal at that time among Christians of every rank, and he refers to it as one of the customs which had been handed down from the preceding ages, and one for which, by its long continuance, its reasonableness, and its very nature as an act of faith, the authority of God Himself might be claimed. [De Corona, III., IV.] St. Basil, a beloved friend of St. Athanasius, who once bade some of St. Basil's flock "thank God for having given you so glorious a Bishop," declares the act of making the sign of the Cross to be one of the traditional customs which had come down from the days of the Apostles. [De Spiritu Sancto, cap. 27.]
St. Cyril, a priest of the Church in Jerusalem, A. D. 347, and afterwards Bishop of that See, strongly insists, in his Catechetical Lectures, on the importance of the Christian custom of making the sign of the Cross on every occasion, as that by which every action is sanctified and devoted to God. He urges its use as an act by which confession is made of Christ crucified, and as a powerful defence against the assaults of evil spirits.
There is good reason to believe that a liturgical and official use of the sign of the Cross in the public services of the Christian Church, is quite as ancient as it is in acts of personal devotion. In St. Augustine's time, viz., in the early part of the fifth century, its use in the administration of sacraments was so thoroughly established that the holy and learned Bishop confidently asserts that unless the sign of the Cross was applied to the brows of the baptized, the water in which they were regenerated, the oil with which they were anointed, and the Eucharist with which they were fed, none of these rites was duly performed. [Hom. St. John CXVIII. 5.]
The evidence, here given, of the antiquity of the Christian custom of making the sign of the Cross publicly and privately, in acts of personal devotion and in official ministrations, is also evidence, implicitly and explicitly, of the authorization of this custom by the Christian Church. For the ancient Christian authors cited above, expressed not merely their own personal opinion or belief but the mind and order of the Church of God in their days. This custom, which was so marked a characteristic of Christian worship and common life in the early ages, has continued to this day. To it applies the spirit, if not the letter, of the famous Nicene phrase, Let the ancient customs prevail; and thus it is not merely tolerated by ecclesiastical authority but commanded by Ecumenical law.
There has been indeed some dimunition of the use of the sign of the Cross, in that it has not commonly been used, during the more recent ages, at all times and on all occasions as described by Tertullian and other very ancient authors; and such dimunition has been especially marked in the Church of England and her outgrowths, since the latter part of the sixteenth century; but at no time anywhere within any portion of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of God, has the usage ceased, or ceased to be commended (and in the administration of sacraments, commanded) by ecclesiastical authority. Even in the Church of England where the modern protestant spirit has been so largely dominant, the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury in their synod held A. D. 1603, defended the reverent use of the holy sign, and declared that "the honor and dignity of the name of the Cross begot a reverend estimation even in the Apostles' times of the sign of the Cross, which Christians shortly after used in all their actions; thereby making an outward shew and profession, even to the astonishment of the Jews, that they were not ashamed to acknowledge Him for their Lord and Saviour, Who died for them upon the Cross. [Constitutions and Canons Eccles. (30) A. D. 1603-4.] * * * At that time, if any had opposed themselves against it, they would certainly have been censured as enemies of the name of the Cross, and consequently of Christ's merits, the sign whereof they could no better endure. This continual and general use of the sign of the Cross is evident by many testimonies of the ancient Fathers. It must be confessed, that in process of time the sign of the Cross was greatly abused. * * * But the abuse of a thing doth not take away the lawful use of it. Nay, so far was it from the purpose of the Church of England to forsake and reject the Churches of Italy, France, Spain, Germany, or any such like Churches, in all things which they held and practised, that, as the Apology of the Church of England confesseth, it doth with reverence retain those ceremonies which do neither endamage the Church of God, nor offend the minds of sober men."
The earliest method of signing one's self with the sign of the Cross was to trace, once or thrice, the outline of an equal-armed cross upon the forehead with the thumb of the right hand. In later times the more common method was to touch the forehead with the tips of the extended and joined index and third fingers of the right hand, the fourth and the little fingers being folded back upon the palm, and the thumb crossed under the two extended fingers, the person meanwhile repeating the words, In the Name of the Father; then the hand was lowered directly to a point a little below the breast and, as the finger-tips touched the body, the words, And of the Son, were said; then the hand was raised in a perpendicular line to the "height of the shoulders and a transverse line was traced from the left to the right shoulder, the signer meanwhile repeating the words, And of the Holy Ghost. Amen. [This was the Western usage. In the East the transverse line has always been drawn from the right to the left shoulder.] This fashion of extending only three fingers, in mystic significance of the Three Persons in the Blessed Trinity, is still used by Bishops in the act of blessing the people, but otherwise the present custom, generally, is to make the sign with all the fingers extended and joined.
Another method, used especially at the reading of the Gospel in the Mass, was to sign the forehead with the right thumb, then the closed lips, and then the body over the heart; thus mystically acknowledging the Father as Head over all, and that the Christian faith was to be held intelligently; and the Son as the Word or Utterance of the Father, and that the faith was to be confessed in speech; and the Holy Ghost as the Bond of Divine Love, and that the faith was to be held in the affections as well as in the mind. An ancient author, commenting on the act of making the holy sign at the reading of the Gospel, says: In signing themselves the people make, as it were, a prayer to God, that the evil one may not snatch away the words of the Gospel from their hearts and minds, and that their souls may be neither hard nor thorny ground, but good soil wherein the seed of the Word of God may grow and bring forth much fruit.
Many people, following the custom which has continued to this day, in their private devotions have been wont to combine in one act two methods of signing, namely, the triple sign made with the thumb upon the forehead, lips, and body, followed by the tranverse line drawn from shoulder to shoulder.
Reverence, as well as agreement with the true Christian custom, requires those who sign themselves with the sign of the Cross to do so without extravagance and undue haste. The lines traced by the hand ought not to exceed the dimensions of that part of the body over which they are made, and they should be about equal in length. The act of making the sign of the Cross ought to be done modestly, the elbow kept close to the side, and the hand, as it traces the outline, moved with reverent slowness, and so as neither to attract needlessly the attention of other persons nor to hide the action.
Not always is the holy sign used for hallowing or for spiritual aid and defence. When the officiating priest makes the sign of the Cross during the canon of the Mass over the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, he does so not as an act of blessing but as signifying the Passion of Christ. And in like manner no blessing is given to the Book, when at the announcement of the Gospel, the text of the Gospel is signed by the reader, but the sign is equivalent to the declaration that the Book of the Gospels is the Book of the Crucified.
The faithful have been wont to sign themselves at the beginning and at the end of all acts of public and private devotion. In the Mass they sign themselves at the announcement of the Gospel; at the last clause in the Creed, the Lord's prayer, and the Gloria in excelsis; at the beginning of the Benedictus immediately after the Sanctus; at the Agnus Dei; and at the Blessing. In the daily offices of Vespers and Matins, it is an ancient custom to sign one's self at the beginning of the Gospel Canticles. Apart from public and common worship the holy sign is used as devotion or need may prompt.
They who reverently use the sign of the Cross always experience something of its power for good. They need no argument to convince them of its reasonableness, nor are they disturbed by the accusation of indulging in a superstitious practice, for they are conscious that the act of making the holy sign identifies them in some mysterious way with Christ crucified and imparts to them some measure of His aid and blessing. They know experimentally the power of the symbol of our salvation to quiet passions and to overcome temptations to sin; under it, as under the seal of God's ownership, they rest confident that the powers of hell dare not touch them; and with it, as a hallowing instrument, they begin and end all their works. To the believer the act of making the sign of the Cross is an act of faith in the three principal mysteries of the Christian religion, the holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Redemption, and as such it is a work whereby God is glorified. In a word the sign of the Cross is a summary of the Christian religion and implies a sincere acceptance of all the obligations of the true Christian life. Its right use, far from being superstitious, manifests agreement with the mind of the Church, and humble confidence in the merits of Christ's Passion.
Frequent and explicit testimony is born by the Fathers of the Church to the marvellous power of the sign of the Cross made by devout souls in time of need. "This sign," says St. Chrysostom, "both in the days of our forefathers and now, hath opened doors that were shut up; hath quenched poisonous drugs; hath taken away the power of hemlock; and hath healed the bites of venemous beasts." Time and again, as the authentic Acts of the Martyrs bear witness, ravenous wild beasts rushing to devour a little company of martyrs in the Coliseum at Rome, were suddenly repelled and fled away when the martyrs, who expected to be torn in pieces, made the sign of the Cross as a final act of faith and the seal of their religion.
Many volumes would be needed to contain a record of all the well authenticated miracles of bodily healing and deliverance which have been wrought by the faithful use of the sign of the Cross, and surely not all the books in the world would suffice to set forth the spiritual victories which faithful souls have accomplished by the reverent use of the same holy sign.
Of old, all were exhorted to use the sign of the Cross on all occasions, as indicating the way in which they should go, the manner in which they should move, the power in which they should act, the Master whom they should serve in all things, the power by which alone they could triumph over evil, and the token by which they manifested their gratitude to Christ and glorified Him as their Redeemer. Heathen folk might laugh at them and call them fools, and faint-hearted brethren plead for a discontinuance of such frequent public professions, but the zealous and stout hearted Christians of those days, true to apostolical tradition, would do nothing without making the sign of the Cross. Instead of fearing to use it, they feared lest, if they used it not, they might be overcome by some foe, material or spiritual. As followers of the Crucified whom the unbelieving world despised and rejected, they used the sign of His Passion as an efficient token of their ever renewed devotion to His service, and of their unreserved dedication to Him of their souls and bodies and all that they had, at all times and in all places.
The conditions under which Christian people live at the present time do not differ essentially from those which marked the earlier ages of our era. Our infirmities, our perils, and our needs, are as real and as great as were those of the primitive Christians. The means of grace which they used, and the methods by which they withstood the wiles of the devil and the temptations of the evil world and the assaults of sinful lusts, have not and cannot be superseded by other means or better methods. Wherefore let us, in humble obedience to the common law of the Church of God, gladly and thankfully make due use of the sign of the Cross; for thus, like our ancestors in the faith, we shall the more easily triumph over evil, and more fully manifest our gratitude to our Redeemer and our fellowship with the Saints.