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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Living the Gospel

By September 19, 2008

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A reader writes:
Before the Gospel reading at Mass, we make the Sign of the Cross on our forehead, our lips, and our chest. What is the meaning of this action?
This is an interesting question--even more so because there's nothing in the order of the Mass to indicate that the faithful in the pews should make such an action. And yet, as the reader indicates, many of us do. Usually, this takes the form of placing the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand together (symbolizing the Holy Trinity) and tracing the entire Sign of the Cross first on the forehead, then on the lips, and finally over the heart.

But if the order of the Mass doesn't say that we should do this, why do we? Quite simply, we're following the actions of the deacon or priest at that moment. After he announces "A reading from the holy gospel according to N.," the deacon or priest is instructed, in the rubrics (rules) of the Mass, to make the Sign of the Cross on his forehead, lips, and chest. Seeing this over the years, many of the faithful have come to do the same, and often have even been instructed by their catechism teachers to do so.

That we're mimicking the deacon or priest only answers why we do this, not what it means. For that, we should look at the prayer that many of us were taught to pray while making these Signs of the Cross. The wording may vary; I was taught to say, "May the Word of the Lord be on my mind [make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead], on my lips [then on the lips], and in my heart [on the chest]."

In other words, the action is the physical manifestation of a prayer, asking God to help us to understand the Gospel (mind), to proclaim it ourselves (lips), and to live it in our daily lives (heart). As I discussed a few weeks ago, the Sign of the Cross is a profession of the essential mysteries of Christianity--the Trinity and the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Making the Sign of the Cross as we prepare to hear the Gospel is a way of professing our faith--and of asking God that we might be worthy to profess it and to live it.

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our Friday "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at catholicism.guide@about.com. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

January 28, 2009 at 9:24 am
(1) Becky says:

Hello Mr. Richert,

I am very happy to see that you included in your response that the three-fold Sign of the Cross was only meant to be done by the priest at Mass.

March 24, 2011 at 9:44 pm
(2) Conrad Camagay says:

What is the meaning or significance of the First and Second reading before reading the gospel?

March 27, 2011 at 8:31 pm
(3) Tony says:

The sign on the forehead is to show that we believe the Gospel, the sign on the lips is to show that we respect the Gospel and desire to spread the Good News, and the sign on our breast is to show that we love the Gospel and want it kept in our hearts.

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