The best part of waking up

We should begin our day, as we should in all things, ‘in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“Show me the sign of your favor, that my foes may see to their shame that you , O Lord, give me comfort and help.” — Psalm 86:17

Beginning your day. Of the many practical suggestions to encourage Catholics to begin their morning with prayer, the best might be that of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who counsels, “Let them [first] have coffee.”

But what those first sips of coffee do to help awaken the energies of our mind and body, the first short prayers of our early morning do to help awaken and inflame the desires of our heart and soul to be united with God in all we do throughout our day’s journey.

Morning’s importance. The saying, “You own the morning,” recognizes the practical advantages of the first hour of our day before the time that lies beyond it becomes more subject to the circumstances and dictates of life and work. But the spiritual value of this time immediately after rising from sleep is particularly important as the Servant of God Romano Guardini (1885-1968) stresses:

Mysteriously, each morning we are born again…. It is plain how much depends on this first hour. It is the day’s beginning. The day may start without a beginning. The day may be slipped into without thought or intention. But such a day, without purpose or character, hardly deserves the name…. A day is a journey. One must decide which way one is going…. The morning hour should have its own distinct
character (“Sacred Signs”).

A simple and easy prayer. While it may take a little bit to shake off the heaviness of sleep upon awakening, there is an easy and simple, yet incredibly powerful way to begin our day—by making the sign of the cross as you pray, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” No other prayer and gesture are as basic and yet essential for sanctifying our day and activities. No other prayer is as important to make throughout the day. Sadly, though, no other prayer is perhaps as undervalued and carelessly offered.

Sacrament and sacramentals. The sign of the cross is what the Church refers to as a sacramental. Christ gave us the sacraments, and the Church gives us sacramentals. Whereas sacraments confer the grace attached to each specifically, sacramentals do not do so, but instead help to prepare us, according to our disposition, to receive grace and to be docile to the workings of the Holy Spirit. With “pious disposition,” sacramentals help to inflame our love of God and to open our hearts to Him, cause the remission of venial sins, and help to repulse Satan’s attacks.

They not only benefit health of soul, but even of body. Holy water is another powerful sacramental that, whenever possible, should be used when making the sign of the cross. We should keep it by our bedside, in our car, at work, and used frequently. A highly recommended prayer when blessing our self with it is, “By this holy water and Thy Precious Blood, wash me of my sins O Lord.”

The power of the cross. So why is the prayer and the act of tracing the cross upon our body so powerful? Two reasons: first, because it recalls and renews our baptism; and second, because Satan despises the cross.

Baptismal dignity. Our baptism comes from the cross, through Christ’s sacrifice by which we are saved. And the 15 words that make up the Sign of the Cross prayer are the very words that immediately follow, “I baptize you…,” in the sacrament of our rebirth and supernatural life in the Most Holy Trinity. They are the baptismal creed that we must live—to bless and to be a blessing in all we do, according to our vocation in life. We do so, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, by exercising our share in Christ’s office as priest, prophet, and king. Great is our dignity, then, as St. Leo the Great expresses:

The sign of the cross makes kings of all those reborn in Christ, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit consecrates them as priests, so that, apart from the particular service of our ministry, all spiritual and rational Christians are recognized as members of this royal race and sharers in Christ’s priestly office. What, indeed, is as royal for a soul as to govern the body in obedience to God? And what is as priestly as to dedicate a pure conscience to the Lord and to offer the spotless offerings of devotion on the altar of the heart?

Why Satan hates this prayer. It was in the blindness of his pride that Satan defiantly declared his disobedience, “I will not serve.” But when we make the Sign of the Cross prayer, we are saying to God, “I want to serve,” and to do everything under the banner of Christ’s cross. When we do so with reverence and faith, according to St. John Vianney, it “makes all hell tremble,” for we open our heart up to God and to the blessings and the power of the cross that Christ shed His Blood upon for our salvation. Because the cross is Christ’s victory over sin and death and Satan’s great defeat, it is our greatest weapon and armor of defense against the “wickedness and snares” of the devil. Should you have any doubts, remember these words of St. John Chrysostom:

“Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and restored the universe. Would you then doubt its power?”

Consecrating our day and activities. Such is the significance and power of this prayer that it should never be made casually or hastily as if we are swatting away an annoying fly. We must remember that the sign of the cross is the sign of our salvation and testament of our discipleship. It is a most unique and special prayer; it is the foundation and capstone of every other prayer we make, including the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It is the prayer we should begin all things with, and the end to which all our actions should be directed. We would do well, then, to heed the caution of Pope St. Leo IV: “Take care to make this sign rightly, because otherwise you bless nothing.”

Little communions. We should endeavor to make the Sign of the Cross prayer throughout our day in order to do with God what we cannot do by ourselves. In the short five seconds or so that we pause to make this great sign of our faith, we open our heart up to spiritual communion. Christ is always longing for us to invite Him into our heart, to be in communion with Him spiritually, no matter how briefly. And as we develop the habit of making this prayer over the course of our day, these many little moments of spiritual communion will yield greater and greater fruits and inspire us to greater acts of love and piety.

Gloria Patri. Similar to the Sign of the Cross is the prayer, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” It is called a “doxology,” meaning “a word of glory or praise.” And just as the Sign of the Cross is like a “little Creed,” so the Glory Be is a “little doxology” that inflames our heart’s desire to give “Glory to God in the highest” and do all things “Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ…,” as a way of living our Mass throughout our day.

Suffering and the cross. During His crucifixion, Jesus heard the words of those who yelled, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Matthew 27:40). And these are the words Satan hurls at us in our trials and sufferings—flee the cross, leave it behind! But, as St. John Paul II reminds us, “Every suffering, given fresh life by the power of the cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of God” (The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 26).

So, if Christ commands us to “pick up our cross” and to follow Him (Matthew 16:24), it is because of the redemptive value He gives our sufferings as a share in His cross, as a way to offer our sacrifice as a blessing for others. Suffering can make praying difficult, if not almost impossible, but even the desire within our heart to make the Sign of the Cross prayer is enough to unite our cross with Christ’s and make it fruitful in Him.

Highly recommended book. Bert Ghezzi, in his outstanding book, The Sign of the Cross—Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, offers a short and beautiful reflection upon this basic sign of our faith and offers us six beautiful reflections upon its meaning for us. I cannot more highly recommend to the laity and clergy alike this short and easy-to-read book. In it, he reflects upon six meanings of the Sign of the Cross as a: 1) confession of faith; 2) renewal of our baptism; 3) mark of discipleship; 4) help in accepting suffering; 5) defense (and offense) against the devil and temptations; and 6) help in fighting sin and vice and acquiring virtue in their place. This book, like the Sign of the Cross, is so easy and simple, but filled with so many rich treasures.

The great sign of God’s favor. While there are other prayers and devotions to be recommended for beginning our day, first among them being the Morning Offering (the subject of a future column), all must begin, as should everything we do, with the Sign of the Cross prayer. When done so with care and reverence, we make present in that moment, “the sign of [God’s] favor,” which makes “our foes… see to their shame that [God gives us] comfort and help” (Psalm 86:17).

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