The witness of the Sign of the Cross


It is a slightly unwitting thought, but our worship endeavours to make us witnesses. There is the obvious sense in which our commitment to Sunday Eucharist is a tangible sign of our faith, the commitment it requires and the community that it builds. And then there is that other level. 

The different parts of our worship attempt to mould us into a particular type of witness. The trouble is we are just not very attentive to this. Take the Sign of the Cross however.

Once the procession has concluded the first action of the entire assembly is the Sign of the Cross. At its heart is the physical act of marking our bodies with the marks of Jesus’ death. Each of us makes the gesture, and all of us make it together.

When we mark our bodies with this sign, what are we doing?  Do we not suggest that we will stand, with our bodies, where Jesus stood; that where his cross is, there we will be. This may be a more challenging task than at first we imagine. 

It is worth revisiting the last days of Jesus to discover what it means to be at his cross. Jesus’ passion involved a violent, relentless stripping of his identity as a human being. 

Scourged, mocked and naked, the path he took led him into solidarity with those in society who are outcasts and the recipients of our derision. In all this he was left friendless. He stood with the abandoned. Carrying his own cross, he became a public spectacle for his own people. His rejection was complete. 

His death was a public sport. His religious leaders betrayed him. His crucifixion was at the hands of the enemy, and in the midst of criminals. The burial was rushed, with less than proper arrangements, without custom or dignity. Even in death Jesus was a nuisance, disrupting the temple worship. It fell to a non-believer to provide for him.

When we mark our bodies with this sign we symbolise the physical suffering of Christ. We also symbolise that we commit ourselves to those in the same position as Jesus. In his passion Jesus was stripped of human dignity. In the Sign of the Cross we make a commitment to those whose human dignity is under threat. In the passion Jesus endured the wrath of the mob, the violence of society, and the desertion of his companions. 

In the Sign of the Cross we ask about the underside of our own society, the scapegoating, the violence, the cowardice. We declare that it should cease. In his death Jesus is amongst the criminals, the helpless bystanders, the powerless women. In the Sign of the Cross we say that these shall never be without help, our help. 

Since the thirteenth century we have clothed the Sign with the words of baptism. This formula recalls our own entry into the community of Christ’s kingdom. It signifies our joy in the resurrection, our belonging to the church, and our commitment to embody the kingdom of God on earth. Through the Sign of the Cross the gathered assembly marks itself as dedicated by baptism to stand by the cross of Jesus. This is witness indeed!


This article is adapted from Dr Gerard Moore’s book Why the Mass Matters (St Pauls)

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