Christianity is an incarnational religion, and no branch of it more so than Catholicism. In our prayer and worship, we Catholics frequently use our bodies as well as our minds and voices. We stand; we kneel; we make the Sign of the Cross. Especially in the Mass, the central form of Catholic worship, we engage in actions that quickly become second nature. And yet, as time goes on, we may forget the reasons behind such actions.
MAKING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS BEFORE THE GOSPEL
A reader points out a good example of an action that many Catholics may not actually understand:
Before the Gospel reading at Mass, we make the Sign of the Cross on our forehead, our lips, and our chest. What is the meaning of this action?
This is an interesting question—even more so because there’s nothing in the order of the Mass to indicate that the faithful in the pews should make such an action. And yet, as the reader indicates, many of us do. Usually, this action takes the form of placing the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand together (symbolizing the Holy Trinity) and tracing the entire Sign of the Cross first on the forehead, then on the lips, and finally over the heart.
IMITATING THE PRIEST OR DEACON
If the order of the Mass doesn’t say that we should do this, however, why do we? Quite simply, we’re following the actions of the deacon or priest at that moment.
After he announces “A reading from the holy gospel according to N.,” the deacon or priest is instructed, in the rubrics (rules) of the Mass, to make the Sign of the Cross on his forehead, lips, and chest. Seeing this over the years, many of the faithful have come to do the same, and often have even been instructed by their catechism teachers to do so.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS ACTION?
That we’re mimicking the deacon or priest only answers why we do this, not what it means. For that, we should look at the prayer that many of us were taught to pray while making these Signs of the Cross. The wording may vary; I was taught to say, “May the Word of the Lord be on my mind [make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead], on my lips [then on the lips], and in my heart [on the chest].”
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In other words, the action is the physical manifestation of a prayer, asking God to help us to understand the Gospel (mind), to proclaim it ourselves (lips), and to live it in our daily lives (heart). The Sign of the Cross is a profession of the essential mysteries of Christianity—the Trinity and the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Making the Sign of the Cross as we prepare to hear the Gospel is a way of professing our faith (an even shorter version, one might say, of the Apostles’ Creed)—and of asking God that we might be worthy to profess it and to live it.