At the beginning of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (the Curse of the Black Pearl), Captain Jack Sparrow sails into Port Royal on a small, barely seaworthy boat. Just outside the port, he tips his hat to three dead pirates, hanging near with sign that says ‘PIRATES, YE BE WARNED!‘
The purpose for this sign and the dead pirates is to warn any other pirate who dares to enter Port Royal that they will suffer the same fate – hoping to deter them from entering and plundering the port.
When Romans crucified criminals at the gates of a city, they had the same intention. The charge for each criminal was nailed at the top of the cross in hopes that anyone entering town with the intent of committing a crime might be discouraged from even coming in. In the case of Jesus, Pontius Pilate had his charge written on a sign (Matthew 27:37), often represented today in the letters INRI seen at the top of a crucifix, the Latin initials for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
While today we regard the cross with much more reverence, early Christians regarded the Cross with great trepidation:
…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block (to Jews) and foolishness (to Gentiles,) but to those who are the called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:23-24
Consider those words for a moment: STUMBLING BLOCK and FOOLISHNESS. What do these really mean?
They mean Jesus was seen as a failure. It means He died a horrible death in an incredibly embarrassing way. For God’s people – the Israelites – the Jews – there is no way the ever would have imagined the Messiah being subject to such a fate (he was supposed to follow in David’s footsteps and fight for their freedom.) For everyone else, it meant he was a criminal, meant to be forgotten except as a warning to others not to imitate Him or His actions.
Today, we wear crosses around our necks, and hang crosses in our homes and classrooms. A sign of the Cross is made by the priest, parents, and godparents at the moment of Baptism, and once again over the casket of one who has died. Somewhere along the journey of history, Christians reclaimed the cross and made it their own. As a child, I remember thinking of the sign of the Cross as a means of dialing up God to make sure he was paying attention (I actually remember one Sunday that I prayed all my prayers twice to ensure I hadn’t accidentally made the sign of the cross one too many times and hung up on God!)
When Jack Sparrow saw his dead pirate comrades hanging from a gallows outside Port Royal, the hope of those in charge of guarding the Port was that people like him would flee as a result. When Christians see the Cross, it was the hope of Jesus’ accusers and executioners that we, too, would flee from it (and, ultimately, from Jesus). Amy Welborn writes:
As is His habit, God had done something new, had turned the world upside down and had transformed shame into glory. In the cross, Christians saw it all: the power of sin, the tragedy of creation turned on its author, and in response, love sacrificial enough to embrace the tragedy and love powerful enough to transform them.
This understanding of God’s love as presented through the Cross inspired the Church to get beyond the foolishness and the understanding of the Cross as a stumbling block. Early Christians began tracing the Cross with a single finger or thumb on their foreheads, while later it grew into a sign that we traced across our body. Today, we begin and end many things by signing the Cross on ourselves and naming the God we serve: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What I’ve learned about the sign of the Cross is this: we don’t trace it to get God’s attention – He is listening to us in all times and in all circumstances. We begin “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” because we hope that in every moment of every day, we might think our thoughts, speak our words, and perform, and perform our actions in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We want to make the power of the Cross known to those around us who may not see the sacrificial and powerful love of God. As we make this sign each day, may we be reminded of whose we are (God’s), and of our duty to embrace the Cross in our thoughts, words, and actions.
(This post is a part of a series of posts on traditional Catholic prayers.)