IV. THE EXCELLENCE OF THE VARIOUS PARTS OF THE ROSARY
(a) The Sign of the Cross
"The foundations thereof are in the holy mountains."—Ps. lxxxvi, I.
Dear brethren, we have seen in our previous discourses upon the rosary how for more than six centuries the rosary has proved itself a great, indeed a marvelous, power and help in times of stress. This, of course, was apparent from its very origin. It was a special instrument of divine Providence in troublous times of Church and Society. The various parts of the rosary are admirably adapted to exercise such great power and efficacy. The Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed, the Glory be to the Father, and the Sign of the Cross, which are said in reciting the rosary, are the most beautiful, I the holiest and most excellent of prayers, and for this reason also the most potent and efficacious. The mysteries of our holy faith, which are at the same time meditated upon, embrace the entire work of our redemption, in its work (joyful mysteries), its accomplishment (sorrowful mysteries), and in its fruits (glorious mysteries). Meditation combined with prayer as it is contained in the rosary renders it a perfect prayer. The rosary furthermore is the best means of honoring Mary, and therefore it is the best means for obtaining Mary's powerful intercession.
That we may understand and perceive the whole beauty and excellence of the rosary let us closely view its component parts, and we will begin to-day by considering the opening of the rosary, namely the sign of the Cross. This has a most sublime meaning, and has of itself great power and efficacy. It is a sign of honor, of blessing and of power. In this threefold aspect let us consider it to-day.
I. The sign of the Cross is, first of all, a mark of honor. It reminds us of the holy Trinity and of our relation to the triune God. The Father has created us, the Son redeemed us, and the Holy Ghost has sanctified us. God the Father created us after His own image, and therefore we bear a resemblance to God in our souls. Our soul is a spirit, as God is a spirit. It has understanding and free will; it can be holy; it can become perfect, since our heavenly Father is perfect. Our soul is immortal, as God is immortal, and it is destined to partake in heaven of divine glory and happiness. Is there not in this resemblance and likeness to God an unspeakably high dignity and glory for man? We are reminded of this by the sign of the Cross. The Son of God redeemed us through the Cross. After sin had reduced the human race to a state of ignominious bondage the Son of God, moved by infinite love, became incarnate for us, in order to make satisfaction for our sins and to remove from us their awful consequences. From slaves of sin and of the devil, He has made us just and children of God. Having been redeemed, we now call God our Father; and Jesus, the Son of the eternal Father, calls us His brethren. Of all this we are reminded by the Cross, for we were redeemed through the Cross, and became children of God and heirs of heaven. Thus the Cross is the glorious sign of our redemption. The Holy Ghost sanctifies us by dwelling in us and making of us His temples. What an honor for us! The sign of the Cross reminds us of this honor.
In truth is therefore this sign a mark of the highest honor, and the Christian's greatest glory. In this sense the Apostle wrote to the Galatians: "But God forbid that I should glory, but in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. vi, 14). This means, according to Saint Chrysostom: "I glory only in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, namely, in the faith, in grateful remembrance and contemplation of the benefactions of the Cross, through which we were redeemed and have received the grace to lead a devout: life and to strive for eternal happiness. In the Cross we recognize thoroughly the enormity of our guilt and the boundless love of God."
With what love and devotion should we, then, make the sign of the Cross! As often as we sign ourselves with the Cross we profess our belief in the holy Trinity, and in the merciful and blessed work of the redemption, and express our gratitude to the holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It is hard to believe that there are Christians who are ashamed to make the sign of the Cross; and yet: there are many such nowadays. Some act so from motives of cowardly human respect; others because their faith is dead. But to be ashamed of the Cross means a denial of our faith. At all times the sign of the Cross has served as a public and solemn profession of the Christian faith. Thus did in the days of persecution the faithful profess their belief in Christ, and seal their profession with their blood, as the acts of the martyrs record. When the holy Bishop Polycarp was brought before the heathen judge, who said to him, "Deny Christ and you will be free!" Polycarp's reply was worthy of a true Christian. "It is now over sixty years that I have served Him, and He never did me any harm. How, then, can I deny my beloved Master, King and Saviour?" So speaks the true Christian when an attempt is made to make him deny his God and Redeemer. The sign of the Cross also serves as a mark of distinction from those sects, which centuries ago separated themselves from the mother Church and abandoned the beautiful custom of making the sign of the Cross. It is a great crime, then, to be ashamed of a sign which serves for our honor and distinction. And Jesus Christ says, "For whosoever shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, of him shall the Son of Man be ashamed, when he shall come in his majesty, and of his father's, and of the holy angels" (Luke ix, 26). "But whosoever shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father, who is in heaven" (Matt, x, 33). Thus does Jesus Christ express Himself concerning those who are ashamed of the glorious sign of the true Christian, and those who reject this sign with contempt.
II. The Cross is, furthermore, a sign of blessing. It reminds us, in the first place, as we have considered, of the source of all blessing, of all gifts and graces for body and soul. This source is the blessed Trinity. As often as we make the sign of the Cross we invoke the blessings of God upon us, for we owe all blessings to the infinite merits of our divine Saviour, who died upon the Cross for us. The ignominious instrument of torture and death, the Cross, has now become the instrument of life and the source of salvation. Hence the Church never dispenses blessing except in the sign of the Cross. St. Chrysostom says therefore: Every blessing in which we participate is accomplished through the sign of the Cross. When regeneration (Baptism) takes place, the sign of the Cross is employed. Whether we partake of that holy mysterious food or receive any other of the Sacraments, it is always under the sign of our victory, the sign of the Cross. We should, therefore, earnestly endeavor to have this sign in our homes, and often sign our foreheads with it; for it is the commemoration of our salvation and of our redemption. In making the sign of the Cross devoutly we say to God: Heavenly Father, behold not our sins which render us unworthy of thy grace, but the Cross of thy beloved Son, with which we sign our foreheads, which we profess with our lips and carry devoutly in our hearts. For the sake of Jesus' bitter death upon the Cross be merciful to us and grant us the assistance of thy grace in all our words and actions! This is the prayer which is contained in the sign of the Cross. That such prayer will not remain unheard is attested by numerous manifestations of grace which have been obtained through this sign, and the countless miracles which at all times have been performed through the same.
III. Finally, the Cross is a sign of power. Because Jesus upon the Cross conquered the arch enemy, redeemed mankind and merited for us all blessings and graces, there lies in the sign of the Cross a miraculous strength and efficacy. Jesus himself has said: "Everything that you ask the Father in my name, he will give you." The sign of the Cross calls for help and grace through the Blood of Christ shed upon the Cross. Would God deny such prayer? The sign of the Cross is a particularly powerful weapon against the malicious and cunning assaults of the devil. Of this St. Chrysostom says: "When in the fulness of faith you make the sign of the Cross upon your forehead no impure spirit will be able to tarry near you; for he beholds the sword that has given him the death blow." "Write the sign of the Cross upon thy brow," says St. Cyril, "so that the devils when they see the sign of the king may tremble and take flight." St Augustine tells us that our mere remembrance of the Cross puts the devil to flight, strengthens us against his assaults, and preserves us from his snares. The sign of the Cross provides us with a powerful weapon, wherewith we may conquer the unseen foe in every attack. We know, too, from the testimony of Holy Writ, that the evil spirit can injure mankind not only in body and soul but also in earthly possessions. Thus the devil, by God's permission, slew Job's children, deprived him of his possessions and afflicted him with painful and loathsome maladies. Now, though Christ by His death has broken Satan's power, yet He has not completely removed it. For this reason the Church makes the sign of the Cross over people, blesses food and drink, dwellings, water, soil, in brief everything that Christians come in contact with. This she does in order to withdraw all these things from the injurious influence of the evil spirit, to unite them with the divine blessing and thus make them
salutary. The grace before meals of Christians has the same purpose. It is indeed a sad token of ignorance, of indifference, or lack of faith, when in Christian homes grace before meals is disregarded, as not infrequently happens in our days. We know from the testimony of history that the sign of the Cross was also employed successfully against bodily evils. When St. Benedict was handed a glass of poisoned wine, the saint made the sign of the Cross over it, and behold the glass broke in his hand, and he was saved from death. St. Gregory of Nissa testifies that his sister during an illness desired her mother to make the sign of the Cross over her; and when it was done the illness left her. Through the sign of the Cross Bishop Fortunatus restored the sight to a blind man; St. Lawrence cured several others similarly affected. St. Roch cured the plague stricken, and the legend says that St. Corbinian brought the dead back to life by this same sign. The lives of the saints are replete with examples that testify to the miraculous power of the sign of the Cross.
Because the Cross is then a sign of honor, of blessing and power, because it is an effective remedy against evils of body and soul, the Church has always exhorted the faithful by word and example to make zealous use of the same at all times. Since the time of the Apostles the sign of the Cross has been made by the faithful in all their undertakings. Through this sign they dedicated their work to God and invoke the divine blessing upon it.
The Fathers teach that this custom originated with the Apostles; it is related even by a pious legend that Christ Himself at His ascension into heaven blessed the Apostles with this sign. How universal this custom was among Christians of the early centuries may be learned from the words of St. Chrysostom: "We find everywhere the sign of the Cross, it is used by princes and subjects, by women and men, by the slaves and the free. They all sign themselves with it by making it over their foreheads."
Let us then imitate the pious Christians of those days when faith was more lively and robust, and let us never be ashamed of this sign of honor! What would you think of a soldier ashamed of his colors? Let us not be ashamed of this sign, lest Jesus be ashamed of us, when He comes in power and majesty, with the Cross shining before Him like the sun. Let us not deprive ourselves of the manifold blessings of this sign, either through fear of our fellowmen or indifference. Let us make abundant use of this sign of power, so that we may participate in the blessing and protection that comes from the Cross, most especially when assailed by the enemies of our salvation. This sign of the Cross should be placed upon the forehead, lips and breast, before our prayers, for by this our thoughts, our words, and the emotions of our heart are consecrated and become more pleasing to God. This is the purpose of beginning the prayer of the rosary with the sign of the Cross. But, remember, it is not enough to make the sign merely with the fingers, our spirit must take part in making it, and it should be made with reverence, devotion, with a lively faith and firm confidence in the merits of Jesus Christ. Christians who make this sign thoughtlessly and without devotion deprive themselves of the great blessings of this holy sign. We, however, who have just contemplated this glorious token of salvation will use it with the greatest zeal and piety, and profess with it our faith in the blessed Trinity and in our holy mother Church. Amen.