A few months ago I was flying to Chicago to teach a course at one of our United Methodist Colleges and experienced the rare luxury of being upgraded into first class. This put me up near the front of the aircraft, close enough to be able to follow the operational prater of the flight attendants.
Just after the gate agent had closed the plane’s door, the senior flight attendant announced: “forward cabin and galley doors prepared and cross-checked!” Almost immediately thereafter another flight attendant echoed over the plane’s com-system: “tail galley door prepared and cross-checked!”
I chuckled and, making the sign of the cross, I said: “Passenger, prepared and cross-checked!” The flight attendant who would be doing the seatbelt-buckle and oxygen mask routine saw me do this and began laughing. Similarly, the passenger seated in the window seat to my right saw me do it, grinned, crossed himself as well, and then repeated my words. Suddenly, I heard other passengers do it to my left and behind me. Indeed, the words “Passenger, prepared and cross-checked” echoed down the rows of the plane, accompanied by laughter and a sudden lessening of tensions. I grinned and winked at the flight attendant and her own smile became as wide as her face.
“Passenger, prepared and cross-checked!” That should be our approach to living, my brothers and sisters! We’re called to prepare for this life, and for the next, by checking ourselves with the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Apart from Jesus apart from the love of God which Christ exemplified for us in his life, death, and resurrection we cannot possibly be “prepared” for this life, or for the next. Our calling, as Christians, is to continually check ourselves with and into the love of God; we’re called to turn to and depend upon the gracious self-sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, who died for us that we might never fear sin and death. Rather than relying on ourselves, and our own strength and abilities, the cross challenges us to turn to the means of grace and depend upon Jesus and all that he is and has done for us. In other words, every element in our lives is supposed to be “cross-checked.”
Over the past couple of months several people have asked me why I have made the sign of the cross at various points in our worship services. For the most part, people have not been bothered or upset by this practice, but they have been curious as to why I, a United Methodist, do it. To put this simply, I make the sign of the cross at the following points in worship, and for the following reasons:
- When presiding at the Table of the Lord I will make the sign of the cross over the elements as I pray: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.” Making the sign of the cross at this point in the Great Thanksgiving is an ancient practice in the Church, reminding us that it is through partaking of the consecrated elements of bread and wine that we receive the Real Presence of Jesus and the spiritual benefits of his death upon the cross.
- In the Confession of Sin and Pardon, I’ll make the sign of the cross at the invocation of the name of Jesus as I pray: “Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ ….” Here, the reminder is that we are forgiven only through of the grace of Jesus which comes to us from his atoning sacrifice for our sins upon the cross.
- In the benediction, at the end of the service, I’ll make the sign of the cross when I invoke the Holy Trinity: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is one of the most ancient practices of the Church: when the Holy Trinity is called upon, the sign of the cross is appropriate because it reminds us that the Father’s love for us, in and through Jesus, was manifested on the cross and then conveyed to us through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
I also make the sign of the cross at various times in my own personal spirituality: I try not to be conspicuous, but neither am I self-conscious about doing it. For instance, I usually cross myself before and after receiving Communion in services where I am not presiding and, indeed, even sometimes when I’m serving as the celebrant. I also cross myself at the beginning and at the end of my private, personal prayers as a reminder that Jesus is always with me, wherever I may go. I will also make three signs of the cross with my right thumb -- on my forehead, over my lips, and over my heart -- prior to reading the Gospel.
The sign of the cross is a matter of personal faith and practice; while an important part of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican spirituality, it is not exclusive to these traditions. If drawn by the Holy Spirit, I believe that Christians from any tradition should own the sign of the cross for themselves. If you feel comfortable making the sign of the cross in the midst of worship (or at other times), you should feel free to do so. Please, don’t allow statements like “Methodists don’t do that” to cause you to pause or not follow through; if you feel like you want or need to do so, cross yourself. I do.
And remember, no matter what you do in your personal spiritual life, always be “prepared and cross-checked” with Jesus before leaving Earth.
© 2011, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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