Mass begins with the Sign of the Cross which symbolizes many things: Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; it reminds us just how much we are loved because God was willing to die rather than be separated from us; and it shows us what we are worth, the very life of God. What the sign shows us is important, but where it is placed in the Mass is also something we cannot ignore. It starts us off and it concludes the most important prayer we have as Catholics.
The purpose of the Sign of the Cross could be expounded upon for eternity. However, there are several key reasons why this has become the sign above all signs. Most importantly it is the symbol and pointer to the reality that saves us. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross set us free, liberated us from the powers of sin and death. From the earliest moments of our experience of Christianity we are told: Jesus died for you, he died on the cross. The impact and magnitude of a statement can wear off with the time and repetition. Unfortunately, the habitual nature of the Sign of the Cross and the words, “Jesus died for you,” have also lost their strength in impacting people.
Each time we make the Sign of the Cross, at Mass or at the beginning or end of any prayer, it should shake our core. We are challenged to call to mind the historical details concerning Jesus’ arrest, beating, humiliation, suffering and death. That he was abandoned by his best friends even though they knew who he was; that he was beaten so severely during the scourging that his flesh would have been hanging from his bones; that six inch nails were driven through his hands and feet; that he died of suffocation (drowning above water) as he gasped for air on the cross. These are the facts behind the Sign of the Cross. This sign shows us what we are worth in God’s eyes: everything.
Even more, while he was enduring that pain, humiliation and suffering he thought specifically about you, the one reading this article right now. He said your name in his heart and he knew that one day you would be going through your own form of crucifixion. Christ stands as the one who suffered the most so that no one would ever have to suffer alone. This is the audacity of the cross. It is the most universal sign of our faith, but the most intimately personal one at the same time. The cross begs everyone to take notice that God went through the worst of human pain for us, and that while he did it he thought about and loved us personally.
The Sign of the Cross also shows us who God is. The saving symbol of our faith is, at the same moment, the encapsulation of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). God is defined by love, he is a communion of persons. We do not believe in three gods, but in three persons in God. God’s nature points to the fact that we are all made for relationship: with each other and with God. humanity cannot find its potential alone. The Trinity can be proven through investigations into nature, the human person, and philosophy. Two important notes to keep in mind is that God reveals himself as Trinity in the Bible (God’s words to humanity), and in the life of Jesus Christ.
Then we have the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is born of a virgin and will be revealed as the Son of God sent to personify the love of the Father. Jesus makes numerous trips, alone, in order to pray in union with his Father. In many ways, his whole life is a revelation of the Father and he makes specific claims to be equal to the Father. “The Father and I are one,” (John 10:30). Christ also claims the power to forgive sins, which only God could do and he portrays his power of physical illnesses and nature, all realms controlled by God. Ultimately, it is Jesus’ resurrection that proves his divinity.
Countless spectators watched Jesus of Nazareth go on trial, be convicted of the capital crime of sedition (attempting to overthrow the Roman government), and be executed to death. This is recorded in detail in all four gospels, but is also recorded in history books of non-Christian believers. A contemporary Jew named Josephus wrote a history of his time and recalls that Jesus of Nazareth was a great wonder worker who had a large following throughout Galilee. He also noted that he was killed by the Romans, but that his followers found his tomb empty on the third day after his death. Josephus specifically recorded that the followers of Jesus claimed he had been risen from the dead.
The apostles of Jesus (except for John), all died as martyrs claiming that he was God and that he was raised from the dead after his crucifixion. St. Paul also describes that Jesus appeared to over five hundred men at one time before he ascended into heaven (1 Corinthians 15:6). Why would these witnesses die for a lie? They would not have. They died because their experience of Jesus risen from the dead was true, powerful and life changing. Jesus is God, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who sends the Holy Spirit to enliven our hearts and bring us the forgiveness of sins.
So let us recall the deep power of the Sign of the Cross and perform it with vigor. Next time you make that sign, challenge yourself to remember how much we are worth, and challenge yourself to remember that in the Mass God comes so close to us that He dwells within us.
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