Feb 15, 2012

The Sign of the Cross

Online Edition:
February 2012
Vol. XVII, No. 10

The Sign of the Cross

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI

Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy, 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” (2:2).

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 men.

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 man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his 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.

In 1873, on the Mount of Olives, Greek and Hebrew grave inscriptions bearing the sign of a cross were discovered from the time of Jesus. The excavators inevitably assumed that they were dealing with Christians of the earliest times. In about 1945 increasing numbers of Jewish graves with the Sign of the Cross were being discovered and assigned to more or less the first century after Christ. The discoveries no longer left room for the view that these were first-generation Christians. On the contrary, it had to be recognized that signs of the cross were established in the Jewish milieu.

How are we to make sense of this? The key is to be found in Ezekiel 9:4f. In the vision described there, God says to His linen-clad messenger, who carries the writing case at his side: “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [Tav] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it”. In the terrible catastrophe now imminent, those who do not connive in the sin of the world yet suffer from it for the sake of God, suffering impotently yet at a distance from sin, are sealed with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Tav, which was written in the form of a cross (T or + or X). The Tav, which as a matter of fact had the form of a cross, becomes the seal of God’s ownership. It corresponds to man’s longing for God, his suffering for the sake of God, and so places him under God’s special protection. Erich Dinkler [a German liturgical scholar] was able to show that cultic stigmatization — on the hands or forehead — was occasionally practiced in the Old Testament and that this custom was also well known in New Testament times.

In the New Testament, Revelation 7:1-8 takes up the basic idea in Ezekiel’s vision. The discoveries of the graves, in conjunction with the texts of the time, prove that in certain circles within Judaism the Tav was a widespread sacred sign — a sign of confession of faith in the God of Israel and at the same time a sign of hope in His protection.

Dinkler summarizes his findings by saying that, in the cross-shaped Tav, “a whole confession of faith is summed up in one sign”. “The realities believed in and hoped for”, he says, “are read into a visible image, but the image is more than a mere reflection; it is in fact an image in whose saving power one places one’s hopes” (p. 24).

As far as we know, Christians did not at first take up this Jewish symbol of the cross, but they found the sign of the Cross from within their faith and were able to see in it the summing up of their whole faith. But was Ezekiel’s vision of the salvific Tav, with the whole tradition built upon it, not bound to appear to Christians later as a glimpse of the One who was to come? Was the meaning of this mysterious sign not now “unveiled” (cf II Cor 3:18)? Did it not now become clear to whom this sign belonged, from whom it derived its power? Could they fail to see in all this a prophecy of the Cross of Jesus Christ, who has transformed the Tav into the power of salvation?

The Fathers belonging to the Greek cultural world were more directly affected by another discovery. In the writings of Plato, they found the remarkable idea of a cross inscribed upon the cosmos (cf Timaeus 34ab and 36bc). Plato took this from the Pythagorean tradition, which in its turn had a connection with the traditions of the ancient East.

First, there is an astronomical statement about the two great movements of the stars with which ancient astronomy was familiar: the ecliptic (the great circle in the heavens along which the sun appears to run its course) and the orbit of the earth. These two intersect and form together the Greek letter Chi, which is written in the form of a cross (like an X).

The sign of the cross is inscribed upon the whole cosmos. Plato, again following more ancient traditions, connected this with the image of the deity: the Demiurge (the fashioner of the world) “stretched out” the world soul “throughout the whole universe”.

Saint Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165), the Palestinian-born first philosopher among the Fathers, came across this Platonic text and did not hesitate to link it with the doctrine of the triune God and His action in salvation history in the person of Jesus Christ. He sees the idea of the Demiurge and the world soul as premonitions of the mystery of the Father and the Son — premonitions that are in need of correction and yet also capable of correction. What Plato says about the world soul seems to him to refer to the coming of the Logos, the Son of God. And so he can now say that the shape of the cross is the greatest symbol of the lordship of the Logos, without which nothing in creation holds together (cf I Apol. 55).

The Cross of Golgotha is foreshadowed in the structure of the universe itself. The instrument of torment on which the Lord died is written into the structure of the universe. The cosmos speaks to us of the Cross, and the Cross solves for us the enigma of the cosmos. It is the real key to all reality. History and cosmos belong together. When we open our eyes, we can read the message of Christ in the language of the universe, and conversely, Christ grants us understanding of the message of creation.

From Justin onward, this “prophecy of the Cross” in Plato, together with the connection of cosmos and history that it reveals, was one of the fundamental ideas in patristic theology. It must have been an overwhelming discovery for the Fathers to find that the philosopher who summed up and interpreted the most ancient traditions had spoken of the cross as a seal imprinted on the universe.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 200), the real founder of systematic theology in its Catholic form, says in his work of apologetics, the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, that the Crucified One is “the very Word of Almighty God, who penetrates our universe by an invisible presence. And for this reason He embraces the whole world, its breadth and length, its height and depth, for through the Word of God all things are guided into order. And the Son of God is crucified in them, since, in the form of the Cross, He is imprinted upon all things” (I, 3).

This text of the great Father of the Church conceals a biblical quotation that is of great importance for the biblical theology of the Cross. The epistle to the Ephesians exhorts us to be rooted and grounded in love, so that, together with all the saints, we “may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (3:18f).

There can be little doubt that this epistle emanating from the school of Saint Paul is referring to the cosmic Cross and thereby taking up traditions about the cross-shaped tree of the world that holds everything together — a religious idea that was also well known in India.

Saint Augustine has a wonderful interpretation of this important passage from Saint Paul. He sees it as representing the dimensions of human life and as referring to the form of the crucified Christ, whose arms embrace the world and whose path reaches down into the abyss of the underworld and up to the very height of God Himself (cf De doctrina christiana 2,41, 62; Corpus Christianorum 32,75f).

Hugo Rahner has assembled the most beautiful patristic texts relevant to the cosmic mystery of the Cross. I should like to add only two more. In Lactantius (d. ca. 325) we read: “In His Passion God spread out His arms and thus embraced the globe as a sign that a future people, from the rising of the sun to its setting, would gather under His wings” (81). An unknown Greek author of the fourth century, contrasting the Cross with the cult of the sun, says that Helios (the sun) has now been conquered by the Cross. “Behold, man, whom the created sun in the heavens could not instruct, is now irradiated by the sunlight of the Cross and (in baptism) enlightened”. Then the anonymous author takes up some words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 110), who described the Cross as the cosmic hoist (mechane) for going up to heaven, and says: “O what truly divine wisdom is this! O Cross, thou hoist to heaven! The Cross was driven into the ground — and behold, idol worship was destroyed. No ordinary wood is this, but the wood that God used for victory” (87f).

In His eschatological discourse, Jesus had announced that at the end of time “the sign of the Son of man” would appear in heaven (Mt 24:30). The eye of faith was now able to recognize that this sign had been inscribed into the cosmos from the beginning and thus see faith in the crucified Redeemer confirmed by the cosmos. At the same time, Christians thus realized that the paths of religious history converged on Christ, that their expectations, expressed in many different images, led to Him. Conversely, this meant that philosophy and religion gave faith the images and concepts in which alone it could fully understand itself.

“You will be a blessing”, God had said to Abraham at the beginning of salvation history (Gen 12:2). In Christ, the Son of Abraham, these words are completely fulfilled. He is a blessing, and He is a blessing for the whole of creation as well as for all men. Thus the Cross, which is His sign in heaven and on earth, was destined to become the characteristic gesture of blessing for Christians. We make the Sign of the Cross on ourselves and thus enter the power of the blessing of Jesus Christ. We make the sign over people to whom we wish a blessing; and we also make it over things that are part of our life and that we want, as it were, to receive anew from the hand of Jesus Christ. Through the Cross, we can become sources of blessing for one another.

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 Savior. 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 baptized, 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.

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The Editors