Since I’ve been called to preach to a Catholic-saturated community in Louisiana, I’ve been motivated, more than ever, to begin to research the origin of many Catholic traditions. What I’m coming to learn, as of late, is that the origins of plenty of them began with beautiful and devoted motives. My favorite that I’ve learned about so far is the sign of the cross. Growing up as a Catholic in New Orleans, I now look back and realize that I was taught to do the sign as with merely superstitious motives. At least, I was never taught why it was done, I was just purely instructed to do it. My most common memory of its practice outside of church servies, was to do such every time we passed a church on the road—whether it be Catholic or Protestant. When I learned the origin of this discipline recently, it really warmed my heart.
The earliest witness we have of this practice dates back to the 2nd Century AD. Tertullian, the North African Lawyer-Theologian, and Hippolytus, the Roman scholar-presbyer, both mention it as a tool to remind the Christian heart of the Gospel, and to ensure God is glorified in every common activity.
Tertullian writes from about 200AD:
At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].1
Hippolytus instructs us to imitate Christ by signing before we begin prayer.2 This was intended to quicken the heart to focus on Christ’s death and his earthly work before we shot up prayers to God. He also writes:
When tempted, always reverently seal they forehead with the sign of the cross. For this sign of the passion is displayed and made manifest against the devil if thou makest it in faith, not in order that thou mayest be seen of men, but by thy knowledge putting it forth as a shield.3
In commenting on these writings, John Stott writes, “There is no need for us to dismiss this habit as superstitious. In origin at least, the sign of the cross was intended to identify and indeed sanctify each act as belonging to Christ.”4 My parents, although they are no longer practicing Catholics, they do however practice the sign of the cross before every prayer. This time around however, they no longer practice it from superstitious motives. I believe it is through their appreciation for the Passion of Christ.