Friday, July 16, 2010

What are We Doing When We Make the Sign of the Cross?

One way of thinking about the sign of the cross is as a sort of public identification. When I make the sign of the cross, I am stating to all around me that I am a follower of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for all of us. It's a statement of identity, analogous to wearing the gear of the athletic teams for which you cheer. At some periods in the Church's history, this was clearly the fundamental sense of the action.

But when we make the sign of the cross we are not saying "this is who I am" in some static sense, like giving our name or address. Identity entails personal commitments. To make the sign of the cross is always to be saying "This is the path of salvation to which I give myself". This is the way I want to live my life.

It's not a coincidence that most of the occasions on which we make the sign of the cross are at the start of things, when we're trying to be open to what God might have in store for us -- at the beginning of Mass; at the beginning of the Gospel; upon the child's forehead at the very beginning of a baptism (before even the readings). The sign of the cross bespeaks a desire to be open.

And open in a very particular way -- open to becoming like Jesus by walking the path he walked, so that we, too, little by little might be made into a leaven for our world.

I wonder if we really know that's what we're committing ourselves to when we make the sign of the cross. Because that path -- it's not an easy one. Self-sacrifice is almost never easy (or it wouldn't be a sacrifice). And the end of the road -- the seeming end -- is suffering, abandonment, death. That's a huge part of what we sign up for. In fact, that's the part that really transforms us, that breaks us of old patterns and allows us to be more like Jesus.

To make the sign of the cross is to say, Lord, let my heart be broken open. Let it even be crucified, and regularly, that I might be free of that which keeps me from loving generously and stand with those most in need.

Which sounds great in theory. And on the other side of the pain, it is great. We must always remember both the joy of the resurrection and the clarity of mission that it brought the disciples. But the middle of that journey can get pretty rough.

In fact, if it doesn't get rough, if we don't regularly feel the pinch that comes with this desire to be like Jesus, then we're probably not paying attention. (Or, as a friend likes to tell me, Denial, it ain't just a river in Egypt.)

And on that happy note (which actually is happy, in a funny sort of way), have a great weekend.

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