Sign of the Cross
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The sign of the cross is a form of Catholic blessing whereby a person traces a symbolic cross on their body, or in the air in commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ. The sign of the cross is used in several Christian traditions, but it is most prominent in Catholic and Orthodox tradition.
The sign of the cross represents the victory of Jesus Christ over death. It is also used as an improvised prayer to ward off evil or to bless oneself in a time of prayer or need.
In its most common Roman Catholic form, the sign of the cross is made by touching one's forehead with a finger or a few, then the chest, then the front of the left shoulder, and finally the front of the right shoulder.
The formal and proper form of the sign of the cross includes the use of three fingers, especially when entering the church. The sign is a reminder of one's baptism. Using Holy Water, found in fonts at the entrance, further connects the sign to Baptism. In contemporary Church design, the Baptismal font is in the front to further signify the connection.
There are more elaborate forms, but people are generally free to perform the sign as they please so long as the gesture is respectful and offered in the full sincerity of the faith. It is inappropriate to offer the sign of the cross in irreverent or insincere fashion. Also, the sign of the cross made in the air with the hand, as a blessing for the faithful, is reserved for the use of ordained clergy, Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
More elaborate forms involve the use of three fingers, or making a small cross with the thumb and forefinger. When a cross is made with the thumb and forefinger, the person sometimes ends the sign by kissing their improvised cross. Some people prefer to touch the chest a second time, after their front right shoulder. This second touch represents the fifth wound of Christ.
In the Roman Catholic Liturgy, also called the Holy Mass, when the gospel reading is announced by the Priest or Deacon, Catholics use their thumb and forefinger to make a cross, then trace a tiny cross - first on their forehead, then their lips, and finally over their heart. This is a prayer, asking God to indelibly imprint the message of the Gospel in the mind, on the lips, and in the heart. In other words, inviting the Lord to sanctify their thoughts, their speech and their way of life through His Holy Word.
The sign of the cross can be made in any position, but is commonly paired with the act of genuflection (kneeling on one knee as a sign of respect). The sign of the cross is also made during prayer, often on two knees, but it can also be performed standing up, or even lying down, as in the case of a person who is ill.
Prayers are usually started and finished with the sign of the cross as well as the Catholic Mass and other Liturgical services such as the Liturgy of the Hours, Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament or Litanies. The sign of the cross often the first thing a Catholic Christian does upon waking, and the last thing done before bed.
On Ash Wednesday, the ashes are applied to the forehead by a priest, deacon or extraordinary minister in the shape of a cross, to mark the penitents expressed choice to spend the forty days of Lent in prayer, repentance and fasting.
The sign of the cross can also be done with holy water. As mentioned above, it is often made by Catholics whenever they enter a church building and again upon exiting. Fonts of holy water are placed next to entrances for this purpose. Some people place small fonts at the doorway of their home for the same purpose.
Since Catholics use the sign of the cross so commonly, the gesture itself is considered synonymous with the Catholic Christian faith. It is frequently used in movies to show that a character is a devout Catholic. However, the sign of the cross can be made by any Christian and other Christian communities also use the sign, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.
Eastern Christians, both those who are members of the Orthodox Churches and Byzantine or Eastern Catholics in union with Rome, all make the sign of the Cross. However, they begin with the right shoulder rather than the left, as is the practice of Latin Rite or Western Catholics.
Catholic writer Bert Ghezzi says the sign of the cross has six meanings. "The sign of the cross is: a confession of faith; a renewal of baptism; a mark of discipleship; an acceptance of suffering; a defense against the devil; and a victory over self-indulgence."
The sign of the cross is a serious and powerful prayer ? and a holy symbol. It is a shield and a sword. It dedicates what you do in the name of Jesus Christ. It brings God's blessing. It's not a good luck charm, but it is a sign that says you are willing to accept the suffering of the Cross. So, when you make it, you are affirming your faith in Jesus Christ and your willingness to suffer for Him. It is a prayer in and of itself. Many of the Christian faithful begin every morning, the moment they awaken, by making that sign which says it all, even without the need for words.
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