First Communion Classes begin Sunday at 9:15 a.m. for our youngest members. Over the next four weeks they will explore the Faith and how we practice it at Saint Barnabas. They will not only learn about Holy Communion, but also the whole of worship as we pull out the vestments and holy vessels in our ‘hands on’ lessons. In doing so, I hope it will more fully integrate our children into weekly worship through gaining a better understanding of what we do.
As I prepare for these fun lessons in the weeks to come, it reminded me that we all, at times, could use a refresher on faith and practice. I plan to include a few such lessons for us all this fall, beginning this week by exploring a common practice of signing oneself with the cross.
You likely notice that many, including myself, will periodically make the sign of the cross over themselves in worship. As with all such practices, the intent is to help engage our whole mind and body in worship (both in Sunday worship and daily life). Yet any practice done without understanding, can become distract us rather than assist us toward such an end. The meaning for this practice is rich, and helpful for those who engage in it. However, it is not required. It merely serves as a means to draw us to the Lord as we worship Him.
Many people make the sign of the cross upon entering the church at the holy water stoops and baptismal font as a reminder of our entrance into the Christian faith through the waters of baptism. Dipping their their fingers into them, then sign the cross over themselves, serves as a visible reminder of the moment when we were dipped into the the waters of new life at baptism.
As we begin worship, some will sign themselves once more as we open by blessing God. Similarly, at the end of the Gloria, Sanctus, and at other points when we recall the glory of God, the sign of the cross is used to recall the One who give us eternal life and in Whom our hope resides. Also, when we receive a blessing from the priest, the sign of the cross is made as visible reception of the grace and blessing from of the One who gives it, namely God Himself.
For the same reasons, many will also cross themselves at the end of the Creed. As we profess our faith in life everlasting the sign reminds us of the outcome of the Christian life. As we recall those who have also gone before, many may sign themselves to recall this very hope that we all anticipate and await when all believers are rejoined. These visible signs further engage us in worship and the words we say weekly, as we ever keep the hope wrought by Jesus Christ upon the cross before us.
Another primary point at which one may make the sign of the cross, comes during the eucharistic prayer as the priest speaks the words of Jesus over the gifts of bread and wine. As the Holy Spirit transforms these ordinary gifts into the body and blood of Christ, we adore this great Mystery and are reminded of the grace we receive through them. After receiving, some cross themselves as they reflect upon the great blessing that we partake in.
As the old adage states; all may, some should, none must. The sign of the cross is intended to help engage us in worship. However, it can also extend beyond it to our personal prayer life, and perhaps, as is needed today, serve as a visible reminder to the world of the hope we possess in Jesus Christ our Lord (when used at meals, blessings, or prayers). In every age the world needs to see hope. And we are beacons of it in the way we live, not only in worship on Sunday, but each day. The following quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, dating back to A.D. 315 - 386, is a reminder that of this fact. He wrote,
"Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross 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 comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor's sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor."