The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”[1] So begins the Mass and, as Catholics, so begin many of our actions. We take no notice of what we are doing with those hand gestures because we are in a hurry to do something, do anything, perhaps to pray. We think that since we are making the sign of the cross, that is not praying, but simply going through a gateway that will lead to prayer. Not that we are waving our arms in the air in an unrecognizable gesture: we do it correctly but without calm, or without particular attention, because we want to recite another rote prayer, the “Our Father,” perhaps, or because we are beginning to celebrate Mass. Yet few moments of prayer are as intense, as concentrated, as important as making the sign of the cross.

Let’s imagine the many peregrinos, coming to the end of their journey, and climbing the steps of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Watching them hurry through the portico to enter the nave, one would be tempted to grab them by the arm, stop them and hold them back in the gateway of glory, the glory of those Apostles of stone who greet and welcome the pilgrims. Something like this is the making the sign of the cross: it is a magnificent portico through which we enter gloriously into prayer.

Mass being celebrated by priest in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

In Spanish, we have two verbs and two gestures: santiguarse and persignarse. Santiguar means to sanctify of consecrate: it takes the form of the sign of the cross and a Trinitarian invocation. Persignarse is a cumulative and repetitive action, as in persuading, pursuing, or perturbing, and refers more appropriately to the triple cross on the forehead, on the lips, and on the breast. The words which are spoken are a request for protection: “Through the sign of the holy cross, free us from our enemies, oh Lord…”

We mark our activity and our rest, our joys and our sorrows, with the sign of the cross and the Trinitarian name, and in that way we fulfill our Christian being in the course of life. Even our death will be marked with the sign of the cross. The cross means sacrifice for love, it is death for resurrection. The sign of the cross over our actions signifies to wipe away our selfishness and free us for love; it means renouncing what is empty, renouncing prestige and the longing to possess and to dominate, in order to consecrate our life’s work to Christ.

[1] The above meditation is entitled, Marked by the Glorious Cross, and it was written by Fr. Luis Alonso-Schökel who died in 1998. He was a Spanish Jesuit priest and a Scripture scholar.