A Case for the Sign of the Cross: St. Francis de Sales and his Defense of a Christian PracticePosted: January 23, 2014
On January 24th, Christians around the world honor the memory of St. Francis de Sales, who is remembered for his bold yet graceful defense of the Faith in the 16th century area of Switzerland. Before January 24th came along this year, I had the opportunity to read a copy of St. Francis’ book, The Sign of the Cross, in which he defends the practice of making the Sign of the Cross by referring not only to the historic traditions of Christianity, but also relating powerful stories of its use, and the biblical roots of its importance.
The Sign of the Cross can be made over the forehead or mouth, but the most familiar method is touching the fingers of the right hand to the forehead, followed by the lower/center chest, left shoulder and then right shoulder. This is done while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, which some consider to be “the fifteen most powerful words in the English language”. St. Francis is decidedly Catholic, as are his apologetics, but non-Catholics should not be too quick to dismiss the Sign of the Cross simply because Catholics have gotten the most use out of it. My question is whether all Christians should be using it, and I’ll cut to the chase for a moment: if the Sign of the Cross is inherently (and historically) Christian, and does indeed stand against both evil and false doctrine, then it seems to me that all followers of Christ should be identifying themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Because I prefer to examine Christianity in its full historical context, I am willing to think outside the box on this, even though I’m still technically classified as an “Evangelical Protestant”.
St. Francis’ chapter titles offer some insight into his approach to the subject: “A Public Profession of Faith”, “The Use of the Sign of the Cross in the Church of the Fathers”, “A Reproof to the Antichrist”, “A Defense against Demons”, etc.
Along with scripture references to explain to people why they should not assail such a wonderful Christian practice, St. Francis also quoted many important people from Christian history, such as St. Athanasius: “Every magical art is rebuffed by the Sign of the Cross, and by it every spell is broken”. Or St. Antony: “The demons come in the night pretending to be angels of God. Seeing them, arm yourselves and your homes with the Sign of the Cross, and immediately they will be reduced to nothing, for they fear this victory sign by which the Savior despoiled the powers of the air and made them laughable.” And St. John Chrysostom: “St. Paul calls the Cross a prize, and it should not only be made with the hand on the body, but, in truth, first in the soul. For if in this way you impress it upon your face, not one of the demons will dare attack you, seeing the lance by which they received the mortal blow.”
St. Francis de Sales himself was a very interesting guy. Particularly interesting to me, he is the patron saint of writers, and known for his stand against the harmful ideas of his time that posed a real threat to him personally and caused great spiritual damage to the region in which he lived. According to the biographical note at the end of the book, “…St. Francis’ unflagging poise and kindness in [his] mission led to its eventual success. By the turn of the century, the majority of the area’s inhabitants had returned to the Catholic faith.”
In closing, the description on the back cover of the book is worth quoting at length:
“Embodying the zeal of youth and the wisdom of age, this gentle jewel of Catholic apologetics traces the origins of the Sign of the Cross back to the Fathers of the Church, to the Apostles before them, and finally to our Lord Himself…
“Outside the Creed itself, there are few topics to which the Fathers testify as universally and unanimously as the pious practice of making, frequently and well, the Sign of the Cross…”
I would be curious to hear the thoughts of my fellow Christians on this matter. Why are so many of us not making the Sign of the Cross? As a Christian, I have been longing for a way to identify myself boldly with Christ, express spiritual feelings outwardly, bless and be blessed, and separate myself from heretical versions of the faith. History and Christian tradition may have provided the answer. What do you think?
“If this sign were not applied to the forehead of believers, or to the water with which they are regenerated, or to the chrism oil with which they are anointed, or to the sacrifice by which they are nourished, none of these would be as perfect as they should be.”