Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Please Sign Here: It May Look like We're Scratching a Communal Itch, but That Little Gesture before the Gospel Says a Lot about Our Common Faith

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Please Sign Here: It May Look like We're Scratching a Communal Itch, but That Little Gesture before the Gospel Says a Lot about Our Common Faith

Article excerpt

FOR 35 YEARS I'D MANAGED TO REMAIN IN THE DARK about the act of tracing a little cross on the forehead, lips, and heart before the gospel reading during Mass. Maybe I never received instruction on this ritual in religion class, or perhaps I was sick that day--or not paying attention. But for all these years I had thoughtlessly mimicked the actions of fellow worshipers. Just a pointless ritual, I'd thought, that went along with being Catholic.

Then one Sunday I attended Mass at a small chapel in Fremont, Ohio. I was sitting closer to the altar than I normally do, and my two small children were being unusually well behaved. So I was paying close attention when the priest made very deliberate cross motions on his head, lips, and heart while audibly reciting: "May the Word be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart." I had never heard this prayer before and I was stunned.

As I stood there with my mouth agape, my initial surprise turned to embarrassment. I had been doing the motion wrong all this time! Apparently as a result of my not-so-keen observation skills, I had been tracing the cross on my forehead, chest, and two shoulders instead of forehead, lips, and chest like the rest of the congregation. (I took a small amount of comfort recall ing the story of my cousin's wife, who thought everyone was scratching themselves before the gospel. She wasn't Catholic at the time, though, so she had a much better excuse than I.)

As my flash of embarrassment subsided, I was struck by the power of the prayer. The words are so beautiful in their simplicity. "Wow," I thought. "This is a prayer that I can express with conviction."

Wondering where I had been all my life, I did some research to learn more about the "little" sign of the cross and the prayer. The sign of the cross represents the Holy Trinity-three persons in one God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also calls to mind the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church considers the sign of the cross to be a "sacramental," meaning it is a pathway to receiving God's grace. In Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer: The Sign of the Cross (Loyola Press), Bert Ghezzi writes, "Each time we cross ourselves something significant happens within us. …

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