The most powerful moment of Good Friday for me every year is watching people of all ages come forward to venerate the cross at the 3.00pm Celebration of the Lord’s Passion.
In this beautiful liturgy of Good Friday our positive focus is on the cross since by his resurrection Jesus has turned this instrument of death into the pathway for human life.
For the rest of the year our signs of veneration of the cross may not be as communal or visible. But we will place the cross at the heart of existence if we know our need for reminders that with Christ we are led beyond every suffering and death to life.
An earlier FFF Lenten reflection emphasised the centrality of the crucifix.
Today, in these peaceful Holy Saturday hours, let’s renew our appreciation of the prayer that is the Sign of the Cross, not simply a tidy way of beginning and ending times of prayer, but a full prayer in itself whenever prayed: perhaps formally in liturgy or at the beginning or end of personal prayer, discreetly in a restaurant, or unashamedly before a meeting, a performance or in competition on the sports field.
The Sign of the Cross is the ultimate sign. It is THE sign.
This prayer of the Sign of the Cross cannot be reduced to the work of God as creator, redeemer and sanctifier which is often prompted by the contemporary trend to value only what relates to function and productive behaviour. The Sign of the Cross is about relationship, both the relationship within the persons of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and a reminder of the way that God desires to be in relationship with me with all the tenderness and intimacy of the perfect parent, sibling and even the child, not a committee of workmates as implied by function but a family vibrating with love.
Because the Sign of the Cross is a sign, it by definition points beyond itself. This sign, signed on our bodies, directs our mind and heart to God. It also has a powerful witness value as others witness us making this sign.
In his beautiful reflection on the liturgy (The Spirit of the Liturgy) Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) reflects on this prayer and I have added the few paragraphs on the Sign of the Cross from his book below.
- Practice renewing your appreciation of the Sign of the Cross as a prayer, taking five seconds dozens of times today to pray in this way.
- If you have children, begin today when you kiss them good night by making the Sign of the Cross on their forehead. It is a beautiful and ancient prayer for parents to physically bless their children in this way.
Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger
Part IV – Chapter 2, “The Body and the Liturgy”,
Pt 2, pp 177-184. (2000. Ignatius Press)
The most basic Christian gesture in prayer is and always will be the Sign of the Cross. It is a way of confessing Christ crucified with one’s very body, in accordance with the programmatic words of Saint Paul: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor 1:23f). Again he says: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” .
To seal oneself with the Sign of the Cross is a visible and public Yes to Him who suffered for us; to Him who in the body has made God’s love visible, even to the utmost; to the God who reigns not by destruction but by the humility of suffering and love, which is stronger than all the power of the world and wiser than all the calculating intelligence of people.
The Sign of the Cross is a confession of faith: I believe in Him who suffered for me and rose again; in Him who has transformed the sign of shame into a sign of hope and of the love of God that is present with us.
The confession of faith is a confession of hope: I believe in Him who in His weakness is the Almighty; in Him who can and will save me even in apparent absence and impotence. By signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on. We accept it as a signpost that we follow: “If any person would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). The Cross shows us the road of life — the imitation of Christ.
We connect the sign of the Cross with confession of faith in the triune God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this way it becomes a remembrance of Baptism, which is particularly clear when we use holy water with it.
The Cross is a sign of the Passion, but at the same time it is a sign of the Resurrection. It is, so to speak, the saving staff that God holds out to us, the bridge by which we can pass over the abyss of death, and all the threats of the Evil One, and reach God. It is made present in baptism, in which we become contemporary with Christ’s Cross and Resurrection (cf. Rom 6:1-14).
Whenever we make the Sign of the Cross, we accept our baptism anew; Christ from the Cross draws us, so to speak, to Himself (cf. In 12:32) and thus into communion with the living God. For baptism and the Sign of the Cross, which is a kind of summing up and re-acceptance of baptism, are above all a divine event: the Holy Spirit leads us to Christ, and Christ opens the door to the Father. God is no longer the “unknown god”; He has a name. We are allowed to call upon Him, and He calls us.
Thus we can say that in the Sign of the Cross, together with the invocation of the Trinity, the whole essence of Christianity is summed up; it displays what is distinctively Christian. Nevertheless, or rather for this very reason, it also opens the way into the wider history of religion and the divine message of creation.
I shall never forget the devotion and heartfelt care with which my father and mother made the Sign of the Cross on the forehead, mouth, and breast of us children when we went away from home, especially when the parting was a long one. This blessing was like an escort that we knew would guide us on our way. It made visible the prayer of our parents, which went with us, and it gave us the assurance that this prayer was supported by the blessing of the Saviour. The blessing was also a challenge to us not to go outside the sphere of this blessing.
Blessing is a priestly gesture, and so in this Sign of the Cross we felt the priesthood of parents, its special dignity and power. I believe that this blessing, which is a perfect expression of the common priesthood of the baptised, should come back in a much stronger way into our daily life and permeate it with the power of the love that comes from the Lord.