THE SIGN OF THE CROSS: RECOVERING THE POWER OF THE ANCIENT PRAYER

by Bert Ghezzi

Loyola Press, 2004 120 pages, $16.95

To order: (800) 621-1008

One of the most memorable scenes in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth comes just minutes before the final credits roll.

An unlikely band of baffled soldiers and alarmed Pharisees watches from the entrance to a certain well-guarded crypt as Zerah, the fictional Temple scribe, barges alone into its depths. Finding nothing but a used burial cloth crumpled on a stone slab, he freezes. His eyes go wide.

“Now it begins,” he says ominously. “It all begins.”

I like to watch that scene every Easter and imagine myself in that man's shoes but with our 2,000 years of hindsight. And here's the question I like to mull: What would be the first thing I'd do upon verifying that Jesus' tomb was, indeed, empty of Jesus?

This Easter, following as we are on the most public Lenten observance in memory (40 days of the Stations of the Cross on 3,500 movie screens — who would have thunk it?), I hope you'll allow me to ask you that same question. What's the first thing you would do?

Now come on. If you're a Catholic, it's a no-brainer. Before you summoned the presence of mind to fall to your knees — before you drew another breath or thought another thought — you would make the sign of the cross. After all, isn't that always how “it all begins” for us?

Of course it is. And, yet, consider this. How often do we bless ourselves so hurriedly that we end up treating the gesture, for all intents and purposes, like an obligatory, if not empty, aside? Or as a requisite kickoff to something bigger and more important, whether that might be a longer prayer, a meal or an at-bat? I'd have to be first to admit that, all too frequently, I find myself going through those motions with no more thought than I give to clearing my throat before I speak.

Now comes Bert Ghezzi to clue us in. As he has it, and his case is compelling, every time we make the sign of the cross mindlessly, we brush off a fortune in spiritual benefits God wants to give us.

Following a brief recap of the sign's development in Church history, Ghezzi maps out six unseen activities we initiate every time we pray it with care and attentiveness. It turns out we do nothing less than open ourselves to God, renew our baptism, affirm our Christian discipleship, accept suffering, ward off the devil and ice our appetite for self-indulgence.

As in all his books, Ghezzi is warm and conversational in tone. Like a wise friend over a cup of coffee, he offers lots of sharp insights won from hard experience and doesn't shy from offering up his personal failings to make a point.

“I used to think that I just could not prevent myself from occasionally exploding with rage,” he writes. “I have learned that this was a convenient lie that permitted me to hang on to my pet wrongdoing. … In baptism [the Lord] gives us the sign of the cross as a means of curbing our evil tendencies. I think you will agree that it is a very practical tool.”

Personally one of the things I love best about the sign of the cross is that it allows us Catholics to witness our faith without saying a word. Even on this Ghezzi found a way to challenge me. In his introduction, he urges the reader to make the sign of the cross. As in now. “Go ahead,” he writes, “do it — even if you are reading in a public place.” Where was I when I came to those words? In a crowded service station. Right there and then, sitting among folks waiting on oil changes and tire rotations, a new thing began for me. It all began.

David Pearson is the Register's features editor.