Initially, a group of Christians from different denominations come together to pray, and it is always easy to find out who is (or was) Catholic. Instead of moving right into prayer by addressing God the Father, a Catholic would use his hand to trace a cross over his body or forehead.
Why is it like that? Is it some kind of superstitious?
First of all, let’s see the history behind it.
According to writings from back then in 3rd century, Christians are known for making the sign of the cross over their bodies from the very beginning. During that time, Christian apologist Tertullian wrote “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross.
In all our travels and journeys, in all our coming in and going out, in wearing our shoes, at the bathroom, at the table, in lighting our candles, as we lie down, as we sit down, whatever employment that occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th century, said in one of his Catechetical Lectures , “Let us then not be ashamed to confess Jesus the Crucified. Let the cross be our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our coming and in our going out; before we sleep, when we lie down and when we wake up: even when we are traveling, and when we are at rest.”
It is believed that this early tradition of marking our body with the cross was inspired by a passage in the book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 9:4) where it says, “And the Lord said to him, ‘Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it”.
Some translations of this passage it reads, “mark”.
As some translates it as “Tau upon the foreheads”. Meanwhile Tau is a letter of the Greek alphabet that is written as a T, and so the early Christians saw in it the sign of the cross. The early Christians believed that the sign of the cross set them apart and “marked” them as a chosen people who belong to the one true God.
The sign of the cross that Catholics make before a prayer starts or before any other activity is not supposed to be a superstitious act, but it’s an outward profession of faith.
As the Catechism of the Baltimore explains, “The sign of the cross is a profession of faith in the chief mysteries of our religion because it expresses the mysteries of the Unity and Trinity of God and of the Incarnation and death of our Lord. It also expresses the mystery of the Incarnation by calling to our mind that the Son of God, having become man, suffered death on the cross.”
In addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2157) says: “A Christian starts his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ A baptized person dedicates his day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties”.
The cross is the very center of what we believe and crossing ourselves is supposed to be a constant reminder of the price Jesus paid for our sins. Sign of the Cross is both a profession of faith and a simple prayer that has such great power. Saint John Chrysostom adds that, “anywhere demons see the sign of the cross, they fly away, fearing it as a staff that they are beaten with.”
Lastly, the sign of the cross is a common gesture that has an ancient and biblical roots. Though, it may appear that some Catholics make it superstitiously, it was never intended to be done in such a manner. Sign of the Cross recalls the profound sacrifice of Jesus 2,000 years ago and actively calls upon his aid to help us in our need.