The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayerby Bert Ghezzi
In The Sign of the Cross, author Bert Ghezzi shows how this potent prayer engages the Holy Spirit and affirms Christian identity.
With insights derived from Scripture, church teachings, and personal experience, Ghezzi inspires people to utilize the sign of the cross in their daily lives. Drawing on the fascinating history of the sign of the cross,/i>… See more details below
In The Sign of the Cross, author Bert Ghezzi shows how this potent prayer engages the Holy Spirit and affirms Christian identity.
With insights derived from Scripture, church teachings, and personal experience, Ghezzi inspires people to utilize the sign of the cross in their daily lives. Drawing on the fascinating history of the sign of the cross, Ghezzi reveals six dynamic truths of the spiritual life and encourages Christians to see the sign of the cross as a simple yet powerful way to grow in their relationship with God.
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Read an Excerpt
Recovering the Power of the Ancient Sign
But as for me, it is out of the question that I should boast at all, except of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. . . .
After this, let no one trouble me; I carry branded on my body the marks of Jesus.
Galatians 6:14, 17
This sign is a powerful protection. It is gratuitous, because of the poor. Easy because of the weak. A benefit from God, the standard of the faithful, the terror of demons.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 317–86)1
Adorn and protect each of your members with this victorious sign, and nothing can injure you.
St. Ephraem of Syria (ca. 306–73)2
Alexander Solzhenitsyn leaned on his shovel and watched the gray clouds drag sullenly across the sky. A merciless wind tore at him through his prison garb. He felt as though it penetrated to his soul. Every one of his bones and muscles ached. Hunger gnawed his stomach. Years of hard labor in the Siberian work camp had ruined his health and stripped him of hope.
Solzhenitsyn could endure no longer. He dropped his shovel, left the work gang, and sat on a bench nearby. Soon a guard would command him to return to work. When he would ignore the order, the guard would beat him to death with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to others many times. A quick, bloody death today, thought Solzhenitsyn, would be better than a slow death in a bleak, empty future.
He stared at the ground, waiting for the inevitable. Soon he heard footsteps and braced himself in anticipation of the guard’s harsh words. But when he raised his eyes, instead of a guard he saw a gaunt, elderly prisoner standing before him. The old man said nothing but knelt in front of Solzhenitsyn. With a stick he scratched the sign of the cross in the dirt and then hurried back to work.
Solzhenitsyn looked at the cross, and as he reflected on it, a ray of light penetrated his dark thoughts. In that moment his perspective changed radically. He realized that he did not have to face the evil of the gulag and the Soviets on his own diminished strength. With the power of the cross, he could withstand the evil of not one but a thousand Soviet empires.
He got up from the bench and returned to work. Although the record does not say so, I think that he must also have traced the ancient sign on his breast. None of Solzhenitsyn’s external circumstances changed that day, but internally he had experienced a gentle revolution. The sign of the cross had blessed him with the grace of hope.3
I found this story in an Internet search, and it moved me deeply because it affirmed something I had been discovering in my prayer life. In the past few years I had taken the sign of the cross more seriously. I signed myself more frequently and with more reverence and faith. I sensed that in crossing myself I was tapping into a powerful divine energy that had many practical consequences for my life. It released graces that strengthened me to face the challenges that arose every day.
When I reflected on how things were going for me, I realized that I was doing a better job of controlling my anger and overcoming other problems. I also felt that I was relating to God more freely. I asked myself what I was doing differently that might account for this noticeable progress. The only answer I could come up with was my praying more earnestly with the sign of the cross.
As I sought to understand what was happening to me, I read some articles and books about the sign of the cross. A little research showed that what was a novel experience for me had been the normal, everyday experience of Christians in the Church’s first centuries. Many of the early Christian writers described how believers signed themselves frequently. For example, Tertullian (ca. 160–ca. 225), a theologian writing at the turn of the third century, said, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”?4 My reading showed further that the Fathers of the Church testified to the great blessings and power afforded by the sign of the cross. I will quote the Fathers extensively throughout this book, but here I will cite only St. John Chrysostom (ca. 347–407), the eloquent fourth-century preacher and patriarch of Constantinople:
Never leave your house without making the sign of the cross. It will be to you a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress. Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you covered with such powerful armor. Let this sign teach you that you are a soldier, ready to combat against the demons, and ready to fight for the crown of justice. Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and restored the universe. Would you then doubt its power?5
Chrysostom’s words about the sign of the cross are evergreen. His promises about its power for deliverance from evil, offensive and defensive spiritual warfare, spiritual support and freedom, and restoration hold true for us today.
When I was a boy my mother taught me to make the sign of the cross as I knelt for my prayers at bedtime. For all the years since then I have signed myself at the start and close of my prayers. But in retrospect I realize that, while I have always done it respectfully, until lately I did it routinely, superficially, and unaware of its significance. My recent experience has changed my view of the sign of the cross and my practice of it. I feel that I have recovered the tremendous power of this most ancient Christian prayer.
Sometimes as I sign myself I imagine that I have traveled back in time to Calvary. With Mary, Mary Magdalen, and John, I stand at the foot of the cross as a witness to the Lord’s supreme sacrifice. I watch him die a horrific death out of love for me. Then a soldier pierces his side and a flood of graces flows from his heart. I am engulfed in unimaginable blessings. With this book I encourage you to join me at his cross. Come with me to Golgotha, where you also will discover the life-transforming power of the holy gesture and open yourself more fully to its wonderful graces.
I invite you to explore with me the multidimensional realities of the sign of the cross. If you accept—and I hope you do, for I know you won’t regret it—you too will receive its immeasurable blessings.
If you are like me, you are not satisfied with books about spirituality that aim merely to increase your knowledge. You desire something more. You want experience that touches your heart. You long for realities that address your deepest yearnings. This little book will increase your knowledge of the sign of the cross so you can make it more intelligently. And as you make the sign with more understanding, it will also expand your experience of God and energize your spirit.
I have discovered six dynamic truths about the sign of the cross that I derived from insights I found in Scripture, Church teaching, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the testimony of the saints, theology books, and the personal experiences of mine and my friends’. Each of the six exposes extraordinary facets of the spiritual life that God gives us as our way to happiness. I offer them to you in successive chapters, beginning with chapter 2.
No empty gesture, the sign of the cross is a potent prayer that engages the Holy Spirit as the divine advocate and agent of our successful Christian living. When we trace it on our body, it stirs up the new life of the Spirit that we received in baptism and vitalizes our prayer by drawing us closer to God. Making the sign affirms our decision to follow Christ, allowing him to assume our burdens and free us to live joyfully. The sign of the cross is also a practical tool for dealing with problems. It invites Christ to support us in our pain and suffering and works handily to defuse our worst inclinations and to dispel the temptations of the devil. And the sign is much more, for with a slight motion of the hand and a few simple words it sums up the truth and power of the Christian life.
A Fount of Blessing
My enthusiasm for the sign of the cross coupled with the enthusiasm of the early Christian writers may lead you to a false conclusion about how it works. Let’s be clear up front that the gesture does not cause blessing or empowerment. Rather the sign of the cross opens us to receiving God’s blessing and power. Distinguishing sacramentals from sacraments will help to explain this.
The Church calls the sign of the cross a sacramental because it is like a sacrament. Sacramentals and sacraments work toward the same end, but they differ in a fundamental way. A sacrament is a sign or symbol that causes what it signifies. For example, in the Eucharist God uses bread and wine to make Christ’s body and blood truly present on our altars. So a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace. A sacramental, on the other hand, does not directly confer divine grace; rather it prepares us to receive God’s blessing and disposes us to cooperate with it. While it does not cause grace, it does touch us with spiritual power that it receives from the prayer of the Christian community. “Sacramentals,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church.”?6 Throughout the world during Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, in chapels and private homes, and in all places, members of the Body of Christ pray fervently for family and friends. There is great power in this prayer of the Church, and the person who prays in conjunction with a sacramental connects with its spiritual energy—an activity akin to plugging an appliance into an electrical outlet and flipping on the switch. So when we make the sign of the cross prayerfully, we “plug into” a source of spiritual power generated by the intercession of all the members of the Body of Christ.
Every time we make the sign of the cross, we invite the Lord to bless us, and he always responds. We may sense his action as Solzhenitsyn did when he recovered hope. But most often when we make it, we don’t feel anything. That’s because God is using the movements of our body to reach our spirit, and our senses cannot detect much of what he does there. Yet each time we cross ourselves, something significant happens within us. The Lord gives us a new burst of divine energy. When we touch our forehead, breast, and shoulders in his name, he touches our spirit with the blessings of the cross.
The Church uses the word grace to describe the blessing bestowed on us through the sacraments and sacramentals. Grace refers to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that comes to us as God’s free gift. Sanctifying grace is the presence of the Spirit that was bestowed on us at our baptism and that saves us and makes us holy. Actual grace refers to a specific gift of divine energy that supports our Christian life. Solzhenitsyn, for example, abided in the sanctifying grace that flooded him at his baptism, and the divine intervention that gave him hope to endure the gulag was an actual grace.
Like all sacramentals, the sign of the cross disposes us to make better use of sanctifying grace and calls on God to give us actual graces. The Catechism emphasizes this reality:
For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.7
Here the Catechism recommends the ancient Christian practice of consecrating daily life with sacramentals, the chief of which is the sign of the cross. Invoking the blessing of the sign during the ordinary activities of our day elevates them to opportunities for drawing nearer to God—activities such as waking up, eating, driving the children to school, starting the workday, responding to e-mail, shopping, relaxing with family, and going to bed.
Blessing others and objects with the sign of the cross is another ancient Christian practice. We make the sign in the air over a person or thing while calling on the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Church extensively employs this form of the sign of the cross as a blessing in the liturgy. During Mass, for example, the presider makes the sign over the bread and wine to prepare them for the sacrifice, and at the end of Mass, he signs a blessing over the people to strengthen them for their service of God and others.
The Church also encourages laypeople to use the sign of the cross to bless others: children, spouses, pregnant women, friends, guests, and so on. And we bless things with it—such as homes, cars, tools, and food—so that our use of them may open us more fully to God.
With this gesture we help others dispose themselves to receive the power Christ released for them from his cross. Striking evidence of this comes from the lives of the saints. Many brought God’s healing to the sick by blessing them with the sign of the cross. Once, for example, St. Clare of Assisi (ca. 1193–1253) walked into her convent’s infirmary, made the sign five times, and five of her sisters were instantly cured of their illnesses. St. Vincent Ferrer (ca. 1350–1419) regularly blessed crowds of thousands with his hand-held cross, and hundreds were healed.8 Mary Lou, my wife, and I make no claims to sainthood, but when our seven children were ill we prayed for them with the sign of the cross and often saw them recover more quickly than medical science predicted they would. (Of course, we also took them to our family physician and gave them their medicine.)
A Simple Gesture and a Simple Prayer
I find it difficult to apply the recommendations of many spiritual books. They overwhelm me with recipes of 7, 12, or 144 things that I must do to achieve spiritual success or with complex programs of spiritual disciplines that require more effort than I can muster. While I admire the wisdom of such books, I am rarely able to do what they suggest. You may feel the same way. But following the advice I give in this little book requires only the effort of making a simple gesture and praying a simple prayer. Christ did the hard work when he endured his excruciating passion and death and made his cross a fount of blessing for us. You can start right now to enjoy more fully the blessings and power of this ancient sign. Just trace it on your body with reverence and faith. Go ahead, do it—even if you are reading in a public place.
Before we consider together the six truths that will broaden your understanding and experience of the sign of the cross, I want to show how Christians have made it in the past and how we have come to make the large and little signs that we make today.
A Short History of the Sign of the Cross
Go . . . all through Jerusalem, and mark a cross on the foreheads of all who grieve and lament over all the loathsome practices in it.
And then you bless yourself with the sign of the holy cross. . . . And in this blessing you begin with your hand from the head downward, and then to the left side and after to the right side, in token and belief that Our Lord Jesus Christ came down from the head, that is from the Father into the earth by his holy Incarnation, and from the earth into the left side, that is hell, by his bitter Passion, and from thence unto his Father’s right side by his glorious Ascension.
Mirror of Our Lady (fifteenth century)1
As soon as you get out of bed in the morning, you should bless yourself with the sign of the Holy Cross and say: “May the will of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be done! Amen.”
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism?2
During the reformation of the sixteenth century some Protestants repudiated the sign of the cross because they judged it to be superstitious. No doubt the practice of some Catholics had given them cause for this conclusion. As early as the sixth century, the misuse of the sign was drawing criticism from leaders in the Church. For example, St. Caesarius (ca. 470–543), the bishop of Arles and one of Christianity’s first best-selling authors, rebuked those who signed themselves while on their way to steal or commit adultery.3 Closer to home, you and I may have unknowingly made a superstitious use of the sign when we wished friends good luck by telling them we would keep our fingers crossed. But Martin Luther himself did not abandon the sign of the cross—in fact, he recommended it in his Small Catechism in an appendix on family prayer.
No trace of superstition or magic marred the sign of the cross in its origins. While no direct evidence exists, it seems clear from circumstances that the holy gesture had its roots as a prayer in apostolic times. Fourth-century Father of the Church St. Basil (ca. 329–79) said that the apostles “taught us to mark with the sign of the cross those who put their hope in the Lord,”?4 that is, those who presented themselves for baptism.
So early Christians probably learned to make the sign of the cross at their baptism when the celebrant marked them with it to claim them for Christ. There is some evidence for this in Scripture. For example, St. Paul reminded the Ephesians that they had received the sign at baptism when he said, “You have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise” (Ephesians 1:13). And Paul may have been speaking of his being signed with the cross at baptism when he told the Galatians, “I carry branded on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). I will say more about this later, but for now I merely want to show that the sign of the cross originated among people who were not far removed from Christ himself.
By the third century, Christians commonly used a thumb or index finger to trace a little cross on their forehead. They associated the practice with references in Ezekiel 9:4 and Revelation 7:3, 9:4, and 14:1, all of which describe believers signing God’s seal on their forehead.5 They also traced the little sign on their lips and breast, as we still do today when the Gospel is announced at Mass. And they made the sign in the air as a blessing over people and things. Tertullian, for example, told of a woman who signed her bed,6 and St. Cyril of Jerusalem described Christians tracing the cross “over the bread we eat and the cups we drink.” Using the sign of the cross as a blessing may have prompted some Christians to make the larger sign that we know today, but that practice did not come into common use until later.
Opposition to the Monophysite heresy in the seventh and eighth centuries may have contributed to the popularization of the larger sign. To summarily refute these heretics—who held that Christ had only one nature, which was divine, instead of two natures, one human and one divine—Catholics in the East began to sign themselves with two fingers or with a thumb and forefinger. They had to trace a larger sign over their body so that their use of two fingers to defend the truth would be visible to all. Imagine the duel that occurred when a Catholic encountered a Monophysite. The Catholic would conspicuously make a large sign with two fingers and then hurry to the other side of the street. The Monophysite would respond by making a large sign with his index finger and then walk off in a huff. The idea of that scene may make us smile, but in those days ordinary folks’ tempers flared over theological issues.
By the ninth century, Christians in the East were making the larger gesture with their thumb and two fingers displayed, symbolizing the Trinity, and with their ring finger and little finger folded in, symbolizing Christ’s two natures. Typically, they touched their forehead and moved to their breast, then crossed their shoulders from right to left. The large right sign of the cross came to be the common practice in the Eastern Church.
How Western Christians came to adopt the larger sign of the cross is less clear. Apparently after the ninth century some Western Christians were imitating the practice of the Eastern Church and were signing themselves with a large right cross. But at the same time others in the West had begun to trace the large cross over their breast by moving their hand from their left shoulder to their right shoulder.
Innocent III (ca. 1160–1216), who was pope at the beginning of the thirteenth century, directed Christians to sign themselves with two fingers and thumb extended, indicating no preference for either the right cross or the left. But before the end of the Middle Ages, Western Christians favored the large left cross. For example, the Mirror of Our Lady, a late-fifteenth-century document, taught the Brigittine Sisters of Syon Abbey, Middlesex, England, to cross themselves from left to right. It explained that the movement from forehead to breast meant that Christ came down from heaven to earth in his incarnation. And the movement from the left to right shoulder indicated that Christ at his death descended into hell and then ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand.
By the end of the Middle Ages—probably under the extensive influence of Benedictine monasteries, where the practice was to make a large left cross with an open hand—most Western Christians were making the sign of the cross as many of us do today.
In every age Christians commonly, but not indispensably, accompanied the act of making the sign with words of prayer. The prayers themselves varied greatly. In the earliest centuries, they used invocations like “The sign of Christ,” “The seal of the living God,” and “In the name of Jesus.” In later ages they prayed, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” “In the name of the Holy Trinity,” and “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the latter being the most common prayer that we use today. Christians have also used formulas suggested by the liturgy, such as “O God, come to my assistance” and “Our help is in the name of the Lord.”7 This diversity of words that can accompany the sign should encourage you to pray spontaneously when you cross yourself, a practice that I recommend in later chapters.
Twenty-first-century Christians have inherited a variety of ways to make the sign. Today you will see people marking themselves with large left crosses or large right crosses; with an open hand or with two fingers and thumb extended; tracing little crosses on their forehead, lips, and breast with one finger, two fingers, or thumb and forefinger. You may see a Hispanic youth make a large left cross and then kiss a little cross made with thumb and forefinger, a common practice among Catholics of Latin American descent. You will see clerics in liturgical settings and laypeople in ordinary situations blessing people and objects with two fingers and a thumb or with an open hand. But no matter how they do it—large or small; with one finger, two fingers, three fingers, or an open hand—all who sign themselves with faith are presenting themselves to the Lord.
Now we will begin our quest to recover the power of this ancient prayer, first examining how the sign opens us to God.
An Opening to God
Whatever you say or do, let it be in the name of the Lord Jesus, in thanksgiving to God the Father through him.
Whatever you ask in my name I will do,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If you ask me anything in my name,
I will do it.
When you sign yourself, think of all the mysteries contained in the cross. It is not enough to form it with the finger. You must first make it with faith and good will. . . . When you mark your breast, your eyes, and all your members with the sign of the cross, offer yourself as a victim pleasing to God.
St. John Chrysostom1
Sometimes Christians make the sign of the cross without saying any words. For example, I silently mark myself when I board an aging airplane or cross the street at a busy intersection, acting on the ancient belief that the sign wards off danger.
But while tracing the sign on our body we usually say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” We call on the Lord in this way especially when we begin and end our prayers. That’s how the Christian community starts its celebration of the greatest prayer of the Church. And Mass always ends with the priest’s pronouncing these words in his cruciform blessing of the assembly.
Making the sign with the invocation of the Trinity has a multilevel spiritual significance. On one level, it serves as a minicreed that we can frequently use to affirm our faith. On another level, it corrects our misimpressions of God and welcomes us into the presence of the Trinity. And on still another, it elevates our prayer, allowing us to pray with Godpower instead of mere humanpower.
Consider these realities with me. Reflecting on them will change the way you make the sign of the cross and will consequently deepen your experience of God. Few spiritual disciplines offer so much benefit for so little effort.
Professing Our Faith
The prayer that we say while making the sign derives from Jesus’ command, reported in Matthew 28:19, that the Church should baptize new disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This formula evolved into longer creeds by which converts declared their faith at baptism. By the end of the fourth century, newly baptized Christians in the churches of the East professed the Nicene Creed, which we now recite at Sunday Mass. Converts in Western churches confessed the Apostles’ Creed, which St. Ambrose (ca. 339–97) named in the fourth century and attributed to the Twelve. The text of that familiar prayer reads as follows:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living
and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.2
Each time we make the sign of the cross we renew our profession of faith in these truths in an abbreviated but spiritually dense form. We express our belief in and commitment to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we acknowledge their work of creation, salvation, and sanctification.
In a practice rooted in the past, many Christians believe that even without our pronouncing the words “In the name of . . . ,” the gesture itself confesses our faith. They hold that making the sign affirms essential Christian doctrines: touching our forehead and descending to our breast declares that we believe that the Father sent his Son from heaven to earth to assume our human nature; touching the left shoulder confesses that the Son died on the cross to bring us salvation; and moving to the right shoulder professes our faith in his ascension to heaven and his sending of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us.
Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation, it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day—family duties, work, study, car and yard maintenance, pet care, and so forth—and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible. Making the sign is an opportunity to profess my faith in God and put him first in my thoughts, where he belongs.
Addressing the God Who Is
Relying too heavily on our imagined ideas of God may weaken or distort our relationship with him. Invoking the Trinity when we sign ourselves helps us avoid this unhappy condition.
Recently an interviewer on a national radio program asked listeners what they did when they prayed. One woman said she imagined God as being “very, very big” and herself as “very, very small” as she stood before him. Another person said he just “climbed up onto God’s lap and sat there with him.” Using our imagination like this can enhance our prayer, but it may also inhibit our coming to know God better and love him more.
In the worst-case scenario, too much imagining may even cause us to worship our own idea of God instead of God himself. For example, aided by artists’ depictions, some people conceive God the Father as a mighty old man with a mane of white hair and a wildly flowing beard framing a ferocious glance, garbed in rivers of silk, and traveling on a cloud.
In C. S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape, who is training his nephew Wormwood to seduce souls, advises the junior demon to encourage his “patient” to pray to the mental picture of God that he has constructed for himself. As you read the following passage, note that the demon refers to God as “the Enemy.” The humans, says Screwtape, "do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. . . . If you look into your patient’s mind when he is praying, you will not find that. If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation; there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons. . . . But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. . . . For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be,” our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it—why, then it is that the incalculable may occur."
Here’s where the sign of the cross comes in. When we invoke the Trinity, we fix our attention on the God who made us, not on the idea of God we have made. We fling our images aside and address our prayers to God as he has revealed himself to be: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes after I have signed myself with the Trinitarian formula, to be sure I’m getting it right I add “Lord, I am praying to you as the God who knows who he is, not to one who I think I know.” In so fixing my gaze on the God who is, I expect the incalculable to occur. I urge you to try it. You will soon notice a difference in your prayer and in your disposition toward the Lord.
Coming into God’s Presence
The word name has lost considerable weight since its usage in the Bible, where it conveyed a heavier meaning than it does now. If we are to experience the full benefit of praying “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we must recover the rich connotation that the name of God has in Scripture.
We regard a name as a label. It simply identifies the person who bears it. But for Jews in biblical times a name did much more. It related the person’s nature and substance. Consider two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. When Jacob triumphed in his wrestling match with God, God gave him a new name that communicated his nature: “No longer are you to be called Jacob, but Israel since you have shown your strength against God and men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). The name “Israel” means “He who strives with God.” And in the New Testament, when Jesus met Simon he immediately gave him a new name that expressed his substance: “‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42, RSV). The Aramaic “Cephas” and the Greek “Peter” both mean “rock.”
Similarly, the name of God carries his nature and substance. When Moses asked God what his name was, he replied, “I am he who is.” God also said to Moses, “This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus told his divine name to Jewish leaders in a confrontation over his relationship to Abraham: “In all truth I tell you, before Abraham ever was, I am” (John 8:58; my emphasis). So God has revealed to us his name, a name that sums up his infinite existence and gives us access to him.
This biblical understanding of God’s name opens us more fully to the spiritual power of the sign of the cross. When we make it while praying “in the name of” the Holy Trinity, we are praying in accord with God’s divine nature and substance. We are praying in union with the God who is. Scripture teaches that when we call on his name, God draws near and blesses us. For example, when God made his covenant with Israel, he promised that “wherever I choose to have my name remembered, I shall come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24). Thus the invocation transports our prayer to a higher level by bringing us into the Lord’s presence and engaging his power. So the sign of the cross is not merely a formula that opens and closes our prayers. It is a sacramental action that draws us near to God and makes us aware that we walk and pray in his company. Such a little gesture, so wonderful a consequence.
Praying with Godpower
Calling on God’s name “supernaturalizes” our natural prayer. I like to say that by signing myself I am praying with Godpower instead of mere humanpower. And praying with Godpower makes a world of difference. By praying in God’s name I am aligning my nature and substance with his nature and substance. This is what Jesus meant when he taught that if we asked anything in his name he would grant it. He repeated this promise five times in his farewell to the disciples the night before he died. He wanted to impress on us the tremendous advantage we have in appealing to his name. Jesus was also aware of our thick-headedness and used repetition to break through it. Just let his words sink into your mind and heart:
Whatever you ask in my name I will do,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If you ask me anything in my name,
I will do it (John 14:13–14).
The Father will give you anything you ask him in my name (John 15:16).
In all truth I tell you,
anything you ask from the Father he will grant in my name (John 16:23).
When that day comes you will ask in my name;
and I do not say that I shall pray to the Father for you,
because the Father himself loves you for loving me,
and believing that I came from God
Jesus does not mean that we can get whatever we want by tacking the formula “in Jesus’ name” onto our prayer requests. Rather he taught us to align our wills with God’s so that we will want what he wants and our prayer will become his prayer. That’s the thrust of the prayer that the Lord gave us: “Our Father who art in heaven, / Hallowed be thy name. / Thy kingdom come. / Thy will be done, / On earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9–10, RSV). We reprise these words of the Lord’s Prayer each time we sign ourselves.
The sign of the cross, then, with its lovely gesture and words, declares our decision to remain one with God and to embrace his will as our own. So praying in the name of the Blessed Trinity ensures that the Lord will answer our prayers because we are learning how to pray for what he holds foremost in his heart.
After I discovered the truths I have laid out in this chapter, I could not make the sign of the cross casually. I make it reverently and deliberately as an act of faith; as an appeal to the God who is, not the God I imagine him to be; and as a means of coming into his presence and aligning my will with his. I hope these truths touch you in the same way.
Now let’s turn our attention to the sacrament of baptism and explore in detail its life-changing connection to the sign of the cross.
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