In Hoc Signo Vinces
(The Latin: "By this sign you conquer")
I want to focus attention on a familiar, but sometimes undervalued sacramental of the Sign of the Cross…most Catholics do not appreciate this gesture of Faith nor understand what a profound act of Faith they make when crossing themselves reverently.
This past summer I visited the Basilica located on the campus of Notre Dame University. Looking up at the painted dome ceiling, I saw an image of Our Lord in Glory, holding the cross, with the Latin inscription above Him, Ave Crux, Spes Unica, meaning: Hail 0 Cross, our only hope, which is also a line from the ancient hymn Vexilla Regis, that expresses in just a few words why the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ is such an important object of our devotion as Christians.
If it were not for the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy passion, we would still be in misery and woe because of Adam's sin. As Sacred Scripture reminds us, 'there can be no atonement for sin without the shedding of blood'. Crucifixion was invented to not only to kill, but to also bring the maximum amount of shame and disgrace upon the individual to be executed. Scripture says, 'Accursed is anyone who hangs upon a tree.'
Our Lord's passion and death upon the cross have transformed the shameful and disgraceful symbol of the cross into a glorious sign of victory and hope. It has even become a blessing for whenever an object or person is blessed, the blessing is always imparted as a sign of the cross. As Catholics we even meditate on the Stations of the Cross in order to recall the great love that Christ has shown to us and to remind us of the horror of our sins. We adore Thee, 0 Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world, is an invocation that we repeat before every station to remind us of the importance of the cross in salvation history and in our own lives.
The Sign of the Cross has deep theological meaning and symbolism. When we make the sign of the cross we first begin by touching our forehead with the right hand. I stress the right hand as some misguided souls think that making the sign of the cross is like using a pair of scissors or throwing a ball – you use whatever hand is comfortable for you. WRONG! The right hand is used because the symbolism is that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and proceeds from the right hand of the Father. The right hand symbolizes the power, the omnipotent power of God, so when we bless ourselves or some object with the right hand we are invoking the omnipotent power of God in gesture as well as in words, invoking the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. We may even state that the right hand symbolizes Christ Himself, since Saint Paul states in his letters, " … Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God … "(1 Cor 1 :24). Elsewhere it is written: Sing to the Lord a new song: because he has done wonderful things. His right hand has wrought for him salvation, and his arm is holy. (Ps. 98: 1)
With the hand at our forehead we say, "In the name of the Father … ", because just as the head has a certain authority over the rest of the body, so the Father has a certain authority among the persons of the Trinity. Of course the three persons of the Trinity are Coequal and Co-eternal with each other, yet there is a certain pecking order, so to speak, based on their relationship one to another.
After starting at the head our hand then passes from the head to the chest as we say, "and of the Son …" showing that just as a thought proceeds from the mind so the Son, the Eternal Word, proceeds from the Father and is the perfect expression of the Father, just as the word is the perfect expression of the thought from which it proceeds. As a matter of fact in making this gesture, the hand in passing from the head to the chest, passes over the mouth from which the word proceeds.
Then we move our hand from the left shoulder to the right, saying at the same time, "and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.", showing that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love, which is demonstrated by the hand crossing over the heart as it does in going from left to right. In the Eastern Rite the tradition is to make this part of the Sign of the Cross from right to left instead of left to right as we do in the Latin rite because it symbolizes that at the end of the world Christ will come to judge first those on the right to eternal salvation and then those on his left to eternal damnation. As you can see it is important that we understand the riches of the Sign of the Cross and to make it in a reverent and not sloppy manner. When we do so we are already making an act of Faith, Hope and Love and a most powerful prayer of adoration, which we offer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Fr. Elias Mary, FI