The execution of criminals in the early ages of the world, and until a comparatively recent date, was marked by extreme cruelty and barbarity.1 A favorite way of inflicting capital punishment among many nations was that of hanging criminals to trees. This practice apparently led to the adoption of crosses for a similar purpose. Execution by crucifixion, of which traces are to be found from the remotest times among the nations of the East and North, was carried into effect in two ways: the sufferer was either bound to a tree or to an upright stake, sometimes after being impaled, and there left to perish; or, again, nails were driven through his hands and feet, and his limbs were also sometimes secured by cords. In time a horizontal bar was fixed to the upright post, and the victim’s hands were stretched out upon it. Such, as we learn from the Gospel narrative, was the manner in which our divine Redeemer was crucified.
The earliest mention we have of this manner of executing criminals was at the time of King David, more than a thousand years before the beginning of the Christian era. The Old Testament states that the Gabaonites demanded from the Jewish king seven persons of the house of Saul, that they might be crucified to appease that people for the treacheries and cruelties practised by King Saul against their nation.2
Although the cross was an instrument of torture, there is conclusive evidence, according to certain writers, that it was also honored in almost every nation. The following extract from one of these writers will be given as a sample: “From the dawn of organized paganism in the Eastern world to the final establishment of Christianity in the Western, the cross was undoubtedly one of the commonest and most sacred of symbolical monuments; and, to a remarkable extent, it is still in almost every land where that of Calvary is unrecognized or unknown. Apart from any distinctions of social or intellectual superiority, or caste, color, nationality, or location in either hemisphere, it appears to have been the aboriginal possession of every people of antiquity. . . . The extraordinary sanctity attaching to the symbol, in every age and under every variety of circumstances, justified any expenditure incurred in its fabrication or embellishment; hence the most persistent labor, the most consummate ingenuity, were lavished upon it. In Egypt, Assyria, and Britain it was emblematic of creative power and eternity; in India, China, and Scandinavia, of heaven and immortality; in the two Americas, rejuvenescence and freedom from physical suffering; while in both hemispheres it was the symbol of the resurrection, or ‘the sign of the life to come; ‘ and, finally, in all heathen communities, without exception, it was the emphatic type, the sole enduring evidence, of the divine unity.”3 The early explorers and missionaries of Mexico, Central America, and Peru, found numerous crosses in those countries; and many are still to be seen among the ruins of their cities and temples.4
That the crosses found among all the pagan nations of antiquity were nothing more than the Egyptian “Tau,” or “Symbol of Life,” a deification of the productive powers of nature, with different shades of signification attached to it by different peoples, appears certain. But it is a little remarkable that what was the symbol of the earthly life among pagans should be the symbol of the spiritual and heavenly life among Christians. From the dawn of Christianity the cross became the symbol of hope, an object of religious veneration; and, in later times, it has also become one of the most common ornaments.
After the discovery of the true cross in the year 326 by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, that monarch issued a decree forbidding the cross to be used thereafter in the execution of criminals. From that time the veneration which the Christians had shown it in secret from the beginning received a fresh impulse; and since that auspicious day nothing is more characteristic of the followers of Christ than the veneration they entertain for the sacred instrument of man’s redemption.
As a religious symbol, the sign of the cross is a sacramental, and the principal one in use among Christians. As made upon the person it is formed in three different ways. That in use in the early ages of the Church was small, and was made with the thumb of the right hand, most commonly on the forehead; but it was also made on any part of the body. The constant use of the sign of the cross by the first Christians, and, much more, the fact that they were surrounded by heathens to whom the sacred sign would have betrayed their faith and put them in danger of persecution, or would have exposed the sign itself to mockery, rendered it necessary for them to make it in such a manner as not to be observed. Next, there is the triple sign, made with the thumb on the forehead, the mouth, and the breast. At present this form is used more commonly by the Germans than, perhaps, by any other people. It is also prescribed in the Mass at the beginning of each of the gospels, but nowhere else in the liturgy. Lastly, the sign of the cross by excellence is that which is made by putting the right hand to the forehead, then under the breast, then to the left and to the right shoulder. The sign of the cross shall be considered from two points of view: as used by the faithful in their devotions, and as employed in the sacred functions of religion.
The devotion of the early Christians to the sign of the cross was extraordinary, and it attests the power they found to dwell in that sacred emblem. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, cries out: “O Lord, Thou hast bequeathed to us three imperishable things: the chalice of Thy blood, the sign of the cross, and the example of Thy sufferings!”5 Tertullian bears witness to the frequent use of the sign of the cross by the Christians of the second century: “At every motion, and every step,” he says, “entering in or going out, when dressing, bathing, going to meals, lighting the lamps, sleeping, or sitting, whatever we do, or whithersoever we go, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.” St. Basil writes: “To make the sign of the cross over those who place their hope in Jesus Christ is the first and best known thing among us.” Not to mention others, St. Gaudentius says: “Let the sign of the cross be continually made on the heart, on the mouth, on the forehead, at table, at the bath, in bed, coming in and going out, in joy and sadness, sitting, standing, speaking, walking—in short, in all our actions. Let us make it on our breasts and all our members, that we may be entirely covered with this invincible armor of Christians.” The writings of the Fathers abound in similar passages; but the following from St. John Chrysostom is worthy of the prince of Christian orators:
“More precious than the universe, the cross glitters on the diadems of emperors. Everywhere it is present to my view. I find it among princes and subjects, men and women, virgins and married people, slaves and freemen. All continually trace it on the noblest part of the body, the forehead, where it shines like a column of glory. At the sacred table, it is there; in the ordination of priests, it is there; in the mystic Supper of Our Saviour, it is there. It is drawn on every part of the Horizon—on the tops of houses, on public places, in inhabited parts and in deserts; on roads, on mountains, in woods, on hills, on the sea, on the masts of ships, on islands, on windows, over doors, on the necks of Christians, on beds, on garments, books, arms, and banquet couches, in feasts, on gold and silver vessels, on precious stones, on the pictures of the apartments. It is made over sick animals, over those possessed by the demon; in war, in peace, by day, by night, in pleasant reunions and in penitential assemblies. It is who shall seek first the protection of this admirable sign. What is there surprising in this? The sign of the cross is the type of our deliverance, the monument of the liberation of mankind, the souvenir of the forbearance of Our Lord. When you make it, remember what has been given for your ransom, and you will be the slave of no one. Make it, then, not only with your fingers, but with your faith. If you thus engrave it on your forehead, no impure spirit will dare to stand before you. He sees the blade with which he has been wounded, the sword with which he has received his death-blow.”
It was with good reason that the early Christians paid so great reverence to the sign of the cross. They had learned from experience that it is the symbol of power; as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “This sign is a powerful protection. It is gratuitous, because of the poor; easy, because of the weak; a benefit from God, the standard of the faithful, the terror of demons.” Armed with this sacred sign the martyrs went forth to battle with the wild beasts of the amphitheatre; walked calmly to the stake to be burned; bowed their necks to the sword, or exposed their bodies to the lash. They braved the terrors of the dungeon, or went willingly into exile. Even tender virgins and children defied the power of the tyrant, and suffered death in its most terrible forms, while thousands sought the lonely deserts to practise a life-long penance, with no companions but the wild beasts, sustained and encouraged by the same never-failing source of supernatural strength.
By the same sign the saints have wrought innumerable miracles. It is related of St. Bernard, to mention no others, that he restored sight to more than thirty blind persons by virtue of the sign of man’s redemption. “Such is the power of the sign of the cross,” says Origen, “that if we place it before our eyes, if we keep it faithfully in our heart, neither concupiscence, nor voluptuousness, nor anger can resist it; at its appearance the whole army of the flesh and sin takes to flight.” The sign of the cross is also a source of knowledge. The form of words uttered in making it, together with the action that accompanies them, teaches the principal mysteries of religion. The words “in the name,” instead of “the names,” express the fundamental truth of the unity of God; while the mention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost declares that in this one God there are three Persons, and thus teaches the mystery of the Adorable Trinity. The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Our Saviour are recalled by the form of the cross traced with the hand. No formula could be more comprehensive and, at the same time, more simple. The sign of the cross is no less a prayer. It is an appeal to Heaven, made in the name of Him who in submission to the will of His Father “humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross”;6 of Him who declared that, “if you ask the Father any thing in My name He will give it you.”7 Hence Christians have learned to begin and end their devotions with the sign of the cross, to render their petitions more acceptable at the throne of grace.
But especially is the sign of the cross a shield and safeguard against the temptations and dangers that threaten the life of the soul. The Fathers of the Church have insisted very strongly on this point, and a few extracts will be given from their writings. And here I shall pause to remark that I have drawn, and shall continue to draw, freely from the Fathers, preferring their own words to their ideas clothed in the language of an other. Their voices, echoing down through the vista of ages, instruct, encourage, admonish, and at times rebuke us for the coldness of our devotion to the sign which they cherished as a priceless inheritance. Prudentius instructs the Christians of his day in these words: “When, at the call of sleep, you go to your chaste couch, make the sign of the cross on your forehead and heart. The cross will preserve you from all sin; before it will fly the powers of darkness; the soul, sanctified by this sign, cannot waver.” St. Chrysostom continues in the same strain: “Do you feel your heart inflamed? Make the sign of the cross on your breast, and your anger will be dissipated like smoke.” And St. Maximus of Turin: “It is from the sign of the cross we must expect the cure of all our wounds. If the venom of avarice be diffused through our veins, let us make the sign of the cross, and the venom will be expelled. If the scorpion of voluptuousness sting us, let us have recourse to the same means, and we shall be healed. If grossly terrestrial thoughts seek to defile us, let us again have recourse to the sign of the cross, and we shall live the divine life.” St. Bernard adds: “Who is the man so completely master of his thoughts as never to have impure ones? But it is necessary to repress their attacks immediately, that we may vanquish the enemy where he hoped to triumph. The infallible means of success is to make the sign of the cross.” St. Gregory of Tours says: “Whatever may be the temptations that oppress us, we must repulse them. For this end we should make, not carelessly, but carefully, the sign of the cross, either on our forehead or on our breast.” St. Gregory Nazianzen thus defied the demon: “If you dare to attack me at the moment of my death, beware; for I shall put you shamefully to flight by the sign of the cross.”
At the risk of heaping up unnecessary proofs of the efficacy of the sign of the cross, a few more extracts will be given from the Fathers. We are their successors in the faith and in the world: let their devotion to the consoling emblem of man's redemption stimulate us to be truly their successors in our constant and confiding use of the same sacred panoply. Says St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “Let us make the sign of the cross boldly and courageously. When the demons see it they are reminded of the Crucified; they take to flight; they hide themselves and leave us.” Origen continues: “Let us bear on our foreheads the immortal standard. The sight of it makes the demons tremble. They who fear not the gilded capitols tremble at the sign of the cross.” St. Augustine answers for the Western Church in these words: “It is with the symbol and sign of the cross that we must march to meet the enemy. Clothed with this armor, the Christian will easily triumph over this proud and ancient tyrant. The cross is sufficient to cause all the machinations of the spirit of darkness to perish.” St. Jerome, the illustrious hermit of Bethlehem, expresses his confidence in the cross in these terms: “The sign of the cross is a buckler which shields us from the burning arrows of the demon.” Finally, Lactantius remarks: “Whoever wishes to know the power of the sign of the cross has only to consider how formidable it is to the demons. When adjured in the name of Jesus Christ, it forces them to leave the bodies of the possessed. What is there in this to wonder at? When the Son of God was on earth, with one word He put the demons to flight, and restored peace and health to their unfortunate victims. To-day His disciples expel those same unclean spirits in the name of their Master and by the sign of the cross.” Let this suffice, where much more might be said, regarding the use of the sacred emblem of man’s redemption among Christians. Turn we now to the employment of it in the august ceremonies of religion.
The sign of the cross is met with everywhere in the liturgy of the Church. No ceremony is performed without it. The hands of the priest are consecrated with the holy oil to enable them to confer blessings by the sign of the cross. In the course of the ceremony of ordination the bishop anoints the interior of his hands with the Oil of Catechumens, reciting at the same time the prayer: “Vouchsafe, O Lord, to consecrate these hands by this unction and our blessing, that whatsoever they bless may be blessed, and whatsoever they consecrate may be consecrated and sanctified, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
With these words is conferred on the priest such power over material objects, no matter what they may be, that he can bless them by simply making the sign of the cross over them, without it being necessary for him to utter any form of words, except, of course, in such cases as the Holy See requires a particular form for the blessing of certain things. He can, by merely making the sign of the cross, confer on beads, medals, statues, crucifixes, etc., the Papal indulgences, so that a person who is rightly disposed can gain all these indulgences! by having one of those blessed objects in his possession.
The number of times in which the sign of the cross is made in the ritual blessings of the Church is all but countless. In the blessing of holy water, for example, it is made twelve times. All the sacraments are administered with the use of the sign of the cross at least once, while in some of them it is employed a number of times. In baptism it is made fourteen times; in extreme unction, seventeen times. In the recitation of the Divine Office it is prescribed a great number of times. But these last crosses, unlike those of the Mass and the sacraments, are not of obligation, except when the Office is said in choir; and hence they may be dispensed with for sufficient cause, at the discretion of the person reciting the Office. It is related of St. Patrick that while reciting the Office he signed himself almost constantly with the sign of the cross.
It is superfluous to state that the sign of the cross is made very frequently in the adorable sacrifice of the Mass; but it may not be generally known that during an ordinary Mass the celebrant makes it in the various ceremonies no less than forty-five times, besides the little triple crosses, already mentioned, at the beginning of the gospels. There is one point, however, with regard to the sign of the cross made in the Mass that seems to call for an explanation. “It is natural that the Church, accustomed to bless everything with the sign of the cross, should so bless the unconsecrated bread and wine. But it is surprising at first sight that the sign of the cross should frequently be made over the body and blood of Christ. Many explanations have been given, but the truth seems to be that no single explanation meets all difficulties, and that the sign of the cross is made over the consecrated species for several reasons. Usually the rite is made to indicate the blessing which flows from the body and blood of Christ.” The sign of the cross at the words immediately preceding the Pater Noster—”Through whom, O Lord, Thou dost ever create all those good things, sanctifiest them, givest them life, blessest them, and bestowest them upon us”—were originally meant to be made over the eulogia, or blessed bread, placed on the altar and then given to those who did not communicate. And here an explanation of the eulogia may not be out of place.
One of the great characteristics of the Church is the unity of its members in one body, with Christ as the head. This unity is admirably expressed in both the elements from which the Holy Eucharist is consecrated: bread being made from a countless number of wheat grains, and wine being pressed from myriads of grapes. The Blessed Sacrament is, then—both from its matter before consecration and from Him whose flesh and blood it becomes by consecration—the special bond of union among the faithful. As the Apostle says: “We being many are one bread.”8 “However, when many of the faithful no longer communicated as a matter of course at every Mass, the need was felt of showing by some outward sign that they were in full communion with the Church. Accordingly, the celebrant consecrated so much only of the bread placed on the altar as was needed for the communicants; the rest was merely blessed, and distributed to those who did not actually communicate, though they had the right to do so. The eulogia (something blessed) then was a substitute, though, of course, a most imperfect one, for the Holy Communion; whence the Greek name antidoton—’ that which is given instead.’ The custom could scarcely have risen before the third century. In the fourth it was well known throughout the East; in the West we find it mentioned by Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. The bread used was sometimes the same as that which was set aside for consecration; sometimes ordinary bread was placed on the altar, and used for the eulogia. Usually the latter bread was blessed after the Offertory; but sometimes, as Honorius of Autun tells us, at the end of Mass. The Council of Nantes gives a form of benediction which the Church still employs in the blessing of the bread at Easter.” Traces of this custom still exist in some French and Canadian churches, as well as among the Greeks.
“The signs of the cross made with the Host in the Mass, immediately after those referred to above, at the words, ‘Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, is unto Thee, God the Father Almighty in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honor and glory,’ probably arose from the custom of making the sign of the cross in naming the persons of the Blessed Trinity. Such, at least, is the result of Bishop Hefele’s careful investigation of the subject. The mystical interpretations of Gavantus and Merati deserve all respect, but scarcely explain the actual origin of the practice.”9 To return from this digression: so frequent is the use of the sign of the cross in the sacred functions of religion that one can hardly look for a moment at a priest performing any of the sacred ceremonies of his ministry without seeing him make the sign of our redemption.
A very important inquiry for all here presents itself. It is: Has the Church granted any indulgences to the use of the sign of the cross? and, if so, what are they? They are these: Pope Pius IX., by a brief of July 28, 1863, granted to all the faithful every time that with at least contrite heart they shall make the sign of the cross, invoking at the same time the Blessed Trinity with the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” an indulgence of fifty days. And by another brief of March 23, 1876, the same Sovereign Pontiff granted an indulgence of one hundred days to those who make the sign of the cross with holy water, with the same conditions and the same form of words.10 It is well to note that the words to be used in making the sign of the cross with holy water are not, “Glory be to the Father,” etc., as some persons imagine, but the formula, “In the name,” etc.
When we are assured by the Christians of all ages, but especially by those of the first centuries, that we have so powerful a weapon as the sign of the cross at our command, it is much to be regretted that we should make so little use of it. Never did the world array before the child of God enemies so numerous or so insidious as at the present time. They assail him on every side; and not with the sword or with fire, but with false philosophy, with pride of intellect, with religious indifference, with materialism; against which it is more difficult to combat for a lifetime than it would be to gain the martyr’s crown in a momentary struggle in the amphitheatre. If the first Christians, trained in the school of the apostles and their immediate successors, regarded as necessary the frequent use of the sign of the cross, why should we all but abandon it? Are we stronger than they? Is not the very opposite the truth? Why, then, do we not return to the pious custom of our fathers in the faith? Why disarm ourselves in the very presence of the enemy?
Still more deserving of censure are those who indeed make the sign of the cross, but make it carelessly. If a person were to stand fifteen minutes at the door of almost any of our churches on a Sunday morning, and look at the motions gone through by not a few of those who enter, he would be safe in concluding that if they were reproduced on paper they might as readily be taken for a Chinese manuscript as for anything else; but it would require a stretch of the imagination to see in many of them what they were intended to represent. It may be seriously doubted whether such careless persons receive the graces or gain the indulgences attached to a proper use of this sacred sign. It is indeed true that there is a tendency to do mechanically what a person has to do often; but for that very reason, if for no other, particular attention should be bestowed on such things. A careful examination of the manner in which they make the sign of the cross would be productive of good to many persons.
But what shall be said of those who are ashamed to make the sign of the cross? We should not, on the one hand, parade what is sacred unnecessarily before the world, on account of the disposition there is in so many persons to scoff at whatever others regard as holy; but, when circumstances require it, we should not, on the other hand, hesitate to sign ourselves with the symbol of man’s redemption. The sign of the cross inspires us with respect for ourselves by teaching us our true dignity. It reminds us that we are the brothers of Jesus Christ. It sanctifies our members with the sanctification which it derived from His. It stamps the unity of God on our forehead, the seat of the mind; it seals our heart and breast with the remembrance of the love of the Father; it strengthens our shoulders to bear the cross of the Son; and it maintains an unbroken union of love with the three Divine Persons by means of the Holy Ghost.
“In making the sign of the cross,” says Mgr. Gaume, “we have behind us, around us, with us, all the great men and grand ages of the East and West—all the immortal Catholic nation. . . . In making the sign of the cross we cover ourselves and creatures with an invincible armor. In not making it we disarm ourselves, and expose both ourselves and creatures to the gravest perils.”11
All this being true, what opinion are we to form of non-Catholics, not a few of whom have an almost fiendish hatred of the sign of the cross? Yet, were they to use it, it would be the marking upon themselves of the instrument upon which the salvation of mankind, and their own, if they are to be saved, was wrought. And, withal, how illogical they are! Witness with what respect the Liberty Bell is cherished, and how it was almost worshipped during its recent trip to New Orleans. Witness the care with which the relics of Liberty Hall, Philadelphia, are guarded. Witness the enthusiasm of the people to have some souvenir of the place where the late General Grant died; how people went so far as to carry away branches of the trees that grew near the cottage in which he breathed his last. Witness, finally, how almost every person has some highly-prized relic of a departed parent or ancestor. And why all this? Because it is natural to man, and because it is ennobling in him, although his enthusiasm frequently carries it to excess. Must Catholics, then, be maligned and called idolaters for following the promptings of nature in the worship of nature’s God? Must we be asked to honor the sword of George Washington because it achieved our liberation from the tyranny of England, and then censured for venerating the cross of Jesus Christ that freed us from the thraldom of Satan? The man who should be so heartless as to insult his mother’s picture would be justly censured by all the world as an inhuman wretch. Let the same world decide whether he is less deserving of censure—to put it in a very mild form—who insults the cross of Christ. Of such so-called Christians let St. Paul be the judge, who cried out: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!”12
I shall conclude with two extracts from the Fathers. Says St. Ephraim: “The sign of the cross is the invincible armor of the Christian. Soldier of Christ, let this armor never leave you, either by day or by night, at any moment, or in any place; without it undertake nothing. Whether you be asleep or awake, watching or walking, eating or drinking, sailing on sea or crossing rivers, have this breastplate ever on you. Adorn and protect each of your members with this victorious sign, and nothing can injure you. There is no buckler so powerful against the darts of the enemy. At the sign of this the infernal powers, affrighted and trembling, take to flight.” And St. John Chrysostom adds: “Never leave your house without making the sign of the cross. It will be to yon a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress. Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you covered with such powerful armor. Let this sign teach you that you are a soldier, ready to combat against the demons, and ready to fight for the crown of justice. Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and resuscitated the universe. Would you, then, doubt its power ?”
1 “Manners, Customs, and Dress during the Middle Ages,” Lacroix, pp. 407 et seq.
2 II. Kings, xxi. 6; I. Edsras, vi. 12.
3 Edinburgh Review, July, 1870.
4 “Conquest of Mexico,” Prescott, vol. iii. p. 368.
5 The extracts from the Fathers given in this essay are taken, for the most part, from “The Sign of the Cross in the Nineteenth Century,” by Mgr. Gaume.
6 Philippians, ii. 8.
7 St. John, xvi. 23.
8 I. Cor. x. 17.
9 “Catholic Dictionary,” pp. 236, 322, 323.
10 Raccolta, p. 4.
11 “The Sign of the Cross in the Nineteen Century,” p. 296.
12 Gal. vi. 14.