Why Do Catholics Make the Sign of the Cross? *
The prophet Ezekiel has a vision in which he sees great sins committed by God's people. But at the urging of a heavenly messenger, the godly men and women who lament the wickedness of their people are marked with an "X" on their foreheads. Bearing that mark, they will be spared the divine judgment that is to come (see Ez 9:1-7).
St. John's vision in Revelation includes a close parallel to this scenario. Before the angels of judgment are allowed to devastate a wicked world, a seal is placed on the foreheads of "the servants of our God" (see 7:1-3; 9:4). Later, this seal is described as the name of Christ and of his Father (see 14:1).
In light of these parallels, many early Christian teachers not surprisingly saw in Ezekiel's vision a foreshadowing of the ancient Christian rite of Baptism. Baptism, after all, is given "for the forgiveness of...sins" (Acts 2:38), so that those who have been forgiven may escape the wrath of God (see 1 Thes 5:9). In addition, the baptismal rite included--as it still does today--the making of a cross with blessed oil on the foreheads of those baptized. (In the Greek version of Ezekiel, the mark is actually the letter tau, which was written more like an upright cross.)
The corresponding scene in St. John's vision most likely reflects the Christian baptismal ceremony of his day. This rite included (again, as it still does) the spoken words "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). The Sign of the Cross on the forehead may also have been part of the rite by that time. As early as the second century, making the Sign of the Cross was a common and well-established custom.
Today, this gesture is usually made by drawing the hand from forehead to breast and then from shoulder to shoulder. When Catholics apply holy water to themselves with the Sign of the Cross upon entering a church, they are recalling their baptism "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." With the ancient Christians, they use the gesture at other times as well, such as then they begin and end prayers. Each time, they point to Christ's cross, the Holy Trinity, and the need to sanctify every action.
Other related scriptures: Mt 10:38, 16:24; Mk 8:34; 10:21; Lk 9:23; 14:27; 1 Cor 1:18; Gal 6:14.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1667-1670; 2157.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com #O-1
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