Question Box: The sign of the cross; jubilee year 2025

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Q: How long have Catholics been making the sign of the cross?

Fr. Hennen

A: It is hard to pin down precisely, but we have been doing this for a very long time. From what I could find out, mentions of this gesture of crossing or blessing oneself appear as early as the 3rd century, which means the practice undoubtedly predates that.

In the Eastern Church (both Orthodox and Catholic), the gesture is made from the forehead to the heart (or chest, just below the sternum), then from the right shoulder to the left shoulder, whereas in the Western (Latin) Church we make the gesture from the left shoulder to the right. We do this while saying, “In the name of the Father [head], and of the Son [heart], and of the Holy [shoulder] Spirit [opposite shoulder].” Ideally, we make this gesture slowly, intentionally and reverently — not “swatting at flies.”

If you think about it, we pack a lot into this little gesture. First, we acknowledge the Trinity — God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the same time, we acknowledge the mystery of the cross. In the downward motion from head to heart is an implicit reminder of the incarnation; that Christ “came down” to dwell among us. God is not simply “in his heaven,” but truly with us, “Emmanuel,” and in our hearts.

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To my mind, the horizontal movement, as we name the Holy Spirit, symbolizes the wideness of God’s mercy. Yes, Jesus dwelt among us, died and rose, but then sent the Holy Spirit to bring his saving love, from east to west, north to south. Symbolized in these two dimension of the cross, then, is both the intensity and the breadth of God’s love across time and space.

We make a smaller sign of the cross during Mass just before the Gospel is proclaimed. As we make this smaller sign of the cross with our thumbs on the forehead, the lips and the heart, we say, “Glory to you, O Lord.” The idea here is that the Gospel should be on our mind, on our lips and in our hearts.

It is also a pious custom to make the sign of the cross whenever passing a church. I think it is also a beautiful prayer we can make whenever we see or hear a passing ambulance, to pray for the sick or injured person. However long we have been doing this, it is a wonderful “mini-Catechism” and profession of our Christian faith.

Q: I heard that a “Jubilee Year” will be held in 2025. What does that mean?

A: I will try to devote a fuller column to this in the future as we get a little closer to 2025. The idea of a jubilee year goes back to our Jewish roots. Originally, this was every 50th year. The number seven is always significant in the Bible, representing “fullness.” Seven times seven years is 49 years. The 50th year was, therefore, seen as a “bonus” and cause for celebration. Debts were forgiven, people rested and let the land rest, wrongs were set right and families and communities reconciled. The name comes from the ram’s horn (yobel) used to announce Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In Christianity, the first jubilee or “Holy Year” was in 1300. Jubilees have generally been held at regular intervals of 50 or 25 years. There have been a few “extraordinary” jubilees, including the most recent in 2015, called by Pope Francis to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council.

For more information check out: www.iubilaeum2025.va.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)


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