8/9/2010 12:40 PM
In the beginning of the Mass, the first words spoken are greatly significant: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The greatest source of meaning here comes from Christ himself: his command to baptize in these divine names, as well as the cross that our gesture emulates.
But the meaning of sacramental words and gestures originate from more sources than the historical commands and circumstances of Christ (even if these are their greatest source). “The liturgical celebration,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “involves signs and symbols relating to creation (candles, water, fire), human life (washing, anointing, breaking bread), and the history of salvation (the rites of the Passover) . . . ” (1189). The Sign of the Cross, then, is “related” to more than the historical Christ, for nature—as in “creation” as well as “human nature”—and history also contribute to its meaning. Last time (see “The Meaning of the Greeting: The Sign of the Cross, Part I”) we saw how the divine persons and the cross were present at creation. To invoke the Trinity and sign oneself with the cross, consequently, is to become a new creation, now in Christ and the Trinity.
History—that is, salvation history—also adds a layer of meaning to the Sign of the Cross, thus giving Christ’s words even deeper sacramental symbolism.
Divine Identity and Protection. Prior to the Tenth Plague in Egypt—the passover of the angel—God tells Moses to slaughter a first-born and unblemished lamb. Next he says, “Take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb . . . . Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you” (Exodus 12:7, 13). Here the doorposts (the vertical) and the lintel (the horizontal) form a cross (of sorts) with the blood of the lamb, and it is this sign that identifies the household as God’s and protects it from death.
The prophet Ezekiel reports another saving cross. Prior to the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel tells of a vision of God’s destroyers—and his savior. In the account, the prophet hears God’s voice to six destroyers and one “man dressed in linen” (Ezekiel 9:3). God says, “Pass through the city (through Jerusalem) and mark an X on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced within it. To the others I heard him say: Pass through the city after him and strike! Do not look on them with pity nor show any mercy! Old men, youths and maidens, women and children—wipe them out! But do not touch any marked with the X” (Ezekiel 9:4-6). The mark of Christ—the X—protects those who bear it. The book of Revelation likewise identifies the “servants of God” as sealed or marked on the forehead (Revelation 7:3).
Blessing. The account of Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons also finds an X on the spot. Shortly before Jacob’s death, his son Joseph brings his eldest sons (that is, Jacob’s grandsons), Ephraim and Manasseh, to Jacob for his blessing. This is how the book of Genesis describes the encounter: “Then Joseph took the two, Ephraim with his right hand, to Israel’s left, and Manasseh with his left hand, to Israel’s right, and led them to him. But Israel, crossing his hands, put out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, although he was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, although he was the first-born” (Genesis 48:13-14). Jacob’s arms, crossed in blessing, prefigure the later cross of Christ, the ultimate blessing of the Father.
What, then, does the gesture of the Sign of the Cross and the naming of the divine persons mean? These sacramentalize—and in so doing make real—a new creation, identification with God, divine protection, the promise of God’s blessing, and the saving act of Jesus himself on the cross.
Sacramental words make present and active unseen and supernatural realities. The meaning of such words is not artificial, given by some committee of pious experts. Rather, “in keeping with the divine pedagogy of salvation, their meaning is rooted” in creation, the old covenant, the person and work of Christ, and the glories of heaven (see CCC, 1145).