An important characteristic of the early Christians was their frequent and devout use of the Sign of the Cross. We can learn a thing or two about the Sign of the Cross by observing the character of these first members of the Church, including the origin of this sacramental and its importance in the lives of the early Christians.
It is always profitable to meditate on the lives of the early Christians and emulate them as well as we can. The label of “early Christians” can be fittingly applied to the Christians who lived during a period of a few hundred years after Christ, starting with those disciples of Christ Himself and including a few generations of Christians who had known the Apostles and the disciples of the Apostles. They were the members of mankind who were closest to God Incarnate, the Word Made Flesh, and knew Him as He lived upon this earth. These members of the Church are renowned as some of the holiest in history. St. Alphonsus de Liguori says that “it may be indeed asserted, without fear of contradiction, God was more beloved in one century after the coming of Jesus Christ than in the entire forty preceding centuries” (Liguori, 27). These great saints truly loved God without reserve and dedicated every action of their lives to the glory of God. Not only did they show themselves to be great saints during life, but some of the greatest deaths the world has ever seen were those of the early martyrs. Though the first Christians were blameless in every aspect, they were passionately hated by the world they lived in. They suffered violent martyrdoms, all the while proclaiming the glory of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity. The firstborn of the Church understood spiritual warfare. They made use of powerful devotions when they saw them, and we can assume that they would not have used the Sign of the Cross unless it had great value.
One other important conclusion can be drawn from examining the use of the Sign of the Cross by the early Christians. It is very probable, indeed almost certain that the early Christians learned the practice of the Sign of the Cross from the Apostles themselves, but even if it was not first prayed by the Apostles, it was clearly formed in the spirit of their teachings. Many prayers attributed to the Apostles themselves invoke the Trinity frequently by name. This is not surprising, as we have the direct order of Christ Himself to baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In fact, this was one of Christ’s final commands that He gave on this earth. Clearly it was very important.
The Sign of the Cross is one of the most ancient prayers of the Church. It proclaims the truth of the Trinity using the words of Christ Himself, while simultaneously giving the Sign of His Passion. Its origins reach back to the Apostles; if it was not directly taught by them, it was instituted by one of the generations of Christians who had received the faith from the Apostles. We should also remember that it was used by some of the greatest generations of Christians the world has ever seen, renowned for their spirituality and incredible love for God. This Sign connects us with them, and we can be sure that each time we pray the Sign of the Cross, the many great saints who also practiced it will greatly appreciate its use by us and add their prayers to ours.
Gaume, Monsignor Jean-Joseph, The Sign of the Cross, The Desert Will Flower Press, Golgotha Monastary Island, Papa Stronsay, 2007
St. Alphonsus de Liguori, The Incarnation, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ, Redemptorist Fathers, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1927 (1983 edition)