The sign of God’s favor

We adore You O Christ, and we praise You. Because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy…” — Luke 10:19

Taking a hint from God. Perhaps it was a sign. If so, God has a great sense of humor.

In my column last month titled, “The best part of waking up,” my intent was to encourage a deeper appreciation of the spiritual significance and incredible power of the Sign of the Cross prayer, and the importance of beginning our morning, as we should all things throughout the day, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

But after writing it, I happened upon a quote (author unknown) that seemed to question the success of my efforts: “The best part of waking up is still a mystery to me.” I took this as God’s way of encouraging me to offer a further reflection upon the sign of the cross, particularly with the approach of Lent.

Embarrassed by the cross. “The Church’s darkest days come when she runs away from the cross.”

Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen is said to have penned these words in his personal journal after visiting a Catholic institution that had no crucifixes upon its walls as it was felt to be too alienating and negative of an image. And such is the darkness we experience when we do not embrace the cross of Christ.

A sign of death and life. Two thousand years ago, there was no greater symbol of fear, suffering, and death than that of the cross of crucifixion. And yet, by embracing the cross and offering His life blood upon it for our salvation and rising from the dead, Christ transformed the greatest sign of evil into the symbol of God’s greatest triumph of love and mercy over sin and death.

For good reason, then, would St. Paul declare, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The cross is still a sign of death, but to sin and the power of darkness, as St. Paul so beautifully exclaims:

“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

How important, then, should the sign of the cross be to us?

The sign as a shield. Consider the importance of signs in salvation history. After Cain slayed his brother, Abel, and is banished to be a wanderer in sterile lands, God placed a “mark” upon him as a shield of mercy so that his guilt might not be further punished by others (Genesis 4:15).

Though we know nothing about the nature of this mark, I wonder if God sealed Cain with his own brother’s innocent blood, a foreshadowing of the blood of Christ “that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). For if “life is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:14), then eternal life is found in the blood of Christ that was shed for love of us upon the cross.

The sign of salvation. In the Exodus account, when the Israelites, in obedience to God’s command, marked the posts and lintel of the door of their homes with the blood of a sacrificed lamb as a sign that they belonged to God, they were delivered by the Lord’s Passover from the deadly enslavement of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:7-13).

And it is by the blood of the Lamb of God upon the beams of the cross that we are set free from the slavery of sin and death. In every Mass, we are encouraged to invite the “Lamb of God” to sprinkle His Blood upon the doorposts of our heart and enter: ”Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof….”

A healing sign. When the Israelites grew weary of the journey and longed again for the food of Egypt over that of the manna, “the bread of heaven” (cf. John 6:32), they complained, “We are disgusted with this wretched food.” As a result, they suffered in their bodies the deadly poison of their sin through the bites of seraph serpents.

But God provided the remedy, instructing Moses to make an image of the serpent and to mount it upon a pole, so that all who repented of their sin and looked upon it would be healed of the deadly poison (Numbers 21:5-9).

In the cross of Christ, we have our healing, and in every confession Christ pronounces those beautiful words, through the voice of the priest as the sign of the cross is made over us:

“… I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

May these words also increase our hunger for the “Bread of Life,” the Eucharist, “the source and summit” of our life in Christ.

The choice between two signs. In Ezekiel’s vision, God commands an angel to mark the foreheads of the few remaining faithful people in Jerusalem with a sign (resembling a cross) to set them apart from those who had desecrated the temple with perverse idolatries (Ezekiel 9: 3-7). And in John’s apocalyptic vision, the faithful who received the “seal of God” upon their foreheads are set apart from those who worshiped the beast and were signed with his mark (Revelation 7:3; 9:4; and 14:1, 9-11).

Whose mark do we want to bear each day?

The condition of discipleship. Because each day is a journey along a path of unknown ways, it must begin with a firm decision. And this decision necessarily requires us to embrace the cross.

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

This is why we must begin our day, as we should all things, with the sign of the cross. Otherwise, how quickly our day can grow dark.

Letting in the light. Upon awakening, there is no easier, nor better, way to pull back the curtains of our heart to the divine illumination than by making the sign of the cross with those most powerful words of our baptismal faith.

And when we briefly pause to make the sign of the cross in the various moments and events of our day, we “awaken” our memory to God’s love and mercy and call Him into our present moment to bless us, to illuminate our heart, and sanctify our activities. In doing so, we heed the caution of Christ:

“Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness” (Luke 11:35).

In union with Christ’s sacrifice. Baptism imprints upon our soul an indelible spiritual sign (which confirmation completes) and consecrates us for the true worship of God. That worship includes the cross. Christ crucified and risen is the High Priest of every Mass, and through our baptismal priesthood we offer and are offered in His sacrifice of the cross to the Father in the heavenly liturgy that we participate in.

And to live our Mass throughout our day and week, the sign of the cross helps us to consecrate our actions as a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God.

Pressed into service. Because we do not get to choose our crosses, we are in many ways like Simon of Cyrene, who was “pressed into service to carry [Jesus’] cross” (Matthew 27:32).

But when we embrace our cross with Christ, it becomes lighter and invested with divine light. In Father Lawrence Scupoli’s 16th-century classic, “The Spiritual Combat,” he offers beautiful and practical counsel for spiritual living, including these strong words:

“Do not be a coward! Do not turn from a cross placed upon you, not by an ordinary person, but by your Father who art in heaven!”

The cross we share in. In our struggles, our prayers often resemble that of the psalmist who prays, “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).

But the sign of God’s favor is in fact the very cross of Christ that we share in! But within the cross of Christ there is power.

Weakness transformed. The cross above all, reminds us that we are weak and powerless before the mystery of evil and suffering.

The cross of Calvary is “the mystery of God’s apparent powerlessness,” and our share in it at times gives us to echo Christ’s words upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27; Mark 15:34).

But as St. Paul learned, the cross we share in is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” As we grow to accept this truth, we learn to say with St. Paul, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

The scepter of power. The psalm that the Church prays in its “Liturgy of the Hours” on the evenings of Sundays and solemnities highlights a beautiful truth about the cross:

“The Lord will wield from Zion your scepter of power: rule in the midst of all your foes” (Psalm 110:2).

In ascending to heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father, Christ bears His royal scepter: His cross.

In “the mystery of God’s apparent powerlessness,” Jesus brought our weakness and sin to be nailed with Him to the cross. By triumphing over sin and death, He transformed the weakness of the cross into the scepter of His power.

And as members of His Mystical Body through our baptism, He wants us to offer our weaknesses and sufferings to Him that He might wield His scepter of power in us. How well Father Scupoli understood as expressed in his prayer:

“O Cross, made for me from the beginning by divine Providence; Cross that the love of my crucified Jesus makes sweeter to me than the greatest of pleasures; place me upon thee that I may be united to Him who became my Redeemer when He died in your arms!”

Lift high the cross. Just as Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that “the best way to have our prayers answered is to pray for the intentions of others,” so, too, the best way to fall in love with your cross is to offer it up in Christ for the blessing of others.

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