Few actions so clearly distinguish a person as a Catholic in our culture as the Sign of the Cross.
Contrary to what some Protestants would have you think, the Sign of the Cross dates back to the earliest times. In third century, Tertullian wrote, “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.” A number of other Church Fathers also attest to the use of the Sign of the Cross early on, including St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril of Jerusalem.
The Sign of the Cross in the New Testament
But does the Sign of the Cross go back as far as the Bible?
For Catholics, the Sign of the Cross does not need to be explicitly recorded in the Scriptures in order to justify its use. The Sign of the Cross simply affirms in gestures the core of the creed—the existence of the Trinity and the crucifixion of Jesus. Only the most reactionary of anti-Catholic prejudices would see in this gesture something to be argued against.
But it just so happens that there is compelling biblical evidence that supports this practice.
The evidence is hidden in a book whose very name suggests the unveiling of concealed concealed—a book so filled with tales of beasts, a seven-headed dragon, horse-like locusts, and a two hundred million-strong army of fire-breathing steeds that you might have missed where it talks about anything like the Sign of the Cross: the Book of Revelation.
In Revelation 7, John witnesses four angels at the four corners of the earth, holding back storm winds ready to wreak havoc on the earth and sea.
Then I saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea, “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites (Revelation 7:2-4, New American Bible, Rev. Ed.)
Catholic commentators have traditionally associated the seal on the foreheads of the servants of God with the Sign of the Cross. (For example, see the Haydock Bible Commentary here and Scott Hahn’s book Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots.)
The book makes two more references to a “sign” on the forehead. In Revelation 14:1, John sees the same assembly of believers with the “name” of the Father and Son on their foreheads. And, in Revelation 22:4, while an angel is leading John on a tour of the New Jerusalem that descended out of heaven, he is told that the servants of God who live in the celestial city will have God’s name on their foreheads.
The idea of a sign or a seal marking members of the Church as God’s own also surfaces elsewhere in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 1:22, Paul writes that, “the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.” Similar language is used in Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30, in which Paul talks about how Christians have been “sealed” with the Holy Spirit.
Although often translated as sealed, the Greek word in these three texts is the same as the one used in Revelation 7:3, sphragizō, which one biblical concordance defines as to set a seal upon, mark with a seal, to seal for a number of purposes, including security from Satan and to prove one’s testimony to a person that he is what he professes to be. (Click here for the full definition.)
All three verses are clearly describing the sacrament of baptism, according to the Haydock Bible Commentary. The sacramental imagery is unmistakable: it is through baptism that our membership in the Church is “sealed.” And it is in baptism that we receive the “first installment,” if you will, of graces to come through life in the Church—particularly through frequent prayer and reception of the other sacraments.
Such baptismal language strengthens the connection with the Sign of the Cross, which is accompanied by the words, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”—the same words with which we are baptized. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once described it, the Sign of the Cross as the “summing up and re-acceptance of our baptism.”
The Sign is the Cross
What did this sign or seal look like? None of the above verses offer specifics. For that, we have to go deeper into the Scriptures.
Commentators, both Catholic and Protestant, have seen Revelation 7:3 as an allusion back to Ezekiel 9:4, where we read God’s instructions to a linen-clad man in one of the prophet’s visions: “Lord said to him: Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark … the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it.”
A number of commentators, most notably St. Jerome, have concluded that the mark was cross-shaped.
Specifically, St. Jerome says the mark was shaped like the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which, in its earliest forms had a cross-like shape.
Now what made Jerome think this?
The sources that were readily available, like the Haydock Bible Commentary and others, don’t elaborate, but it’s clear where he got the idea by taking a look at the Hebrew text for Ezekiel 9:4. There, the word for mark is tav (that’s the transliterated spelling; a phonetic spelling would be tāw or thau). That’s also the Hebrew word for the last letter of its alphabet (according to these language sites here and here).
(It might help, before proceeding further, to recall that languages have words for the letters in their alphabets. Often these words contain they letter they are naming. So, for example, the last letter in our alphabet is Z, but the word for Z is actually zee. Likewise, our word for the letter B is bee, which happens to also be the name for a certain type of insect. It’s the same idea with Hebrew. The word for its last letter is tav which is also the word for mark.)
Now, what was so exciting for St. Jerome and others is that in its ancient forms the letter tav looked like a cross. Specifically, around 2,000 BC the letter was shaped like St. George’s Cross. Around 1,000 BC—a few hundred years before the writing of Ezekiel—it still had a cross-shape but was more like St. Andrew’s Cross. (See below illustration.)
Now, in Ezekiel 9, the mark was to be put on the foreheads of those who grieved and lamented the idolatry and abominations of their fellow Israelites. Those so marked would be saved from the destructed that was to be visited upon the sinners. For Catholic Christians reading the Old Testament, it’s all just too much of a coincidence that the Hebrew word mark is also the Hebrew word for a letter of its alphabet that was shaped like a cross—the instrument with which salvation is offered to all men.
Over the centuries, this interpretation of Ezekiel 9:4 has been taken seriously by saints and scholars alike.
In 1215, Pope Innocent III opened the Fourth Lateran Council with a rousing sermon on Ezekiel 9. St. Francis, who attended the council, was reportedly so inspired that he embraced the tau (the Greek letter that is the counterpart to the Hebrew letter tav) as the emblem of his order, according to historian Warren Carroll.
Catholic Bibles today continue to affirm the cross-imagery hidden in Ezekiel 9:4. In the verse as quoted above, that interpretation is inserted where an ellipsis reads above. In the Douay-Rheims translation, the name of the letter, thau, is offered. The New American Bible—recognizing that most readers don’t know what a thau is, much less what it looks like—instead says that God instructed the linen-clad man to “mark an X on the foreheads.” Either way, St. Jerome’s interpretation still carries water today in Catholic exegetical circles.
All this is to say that the Sign of the Cross is indeed a distinctly Catholic (and Orthodox) practice, but it is also one that is deeply rooted in both the Old and New Testaments. Its witness to a faith that is ever ancient, yet ever new is yet another way the Sign of the Cross symbolizes the heart of what we believe and practice as Catholics.