Updated: Aug 1, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
A couple of months ago, I was with a number of priests at the Chrism Mass. That’s the annual Mass during which the bishop consecrates new sacred oils for all of the parishes. When it came time for the sign of peace, something strange had occurred. It was quite awkward; I blame Covid for the awkwardness.
Have you ever played, jun-ken-po? That’s the local name for rock-paper-scissors. Well, that children’s game came to mind for me during the sign of peace. As I was watching priests exchange the sign of peace, everyone was doing something different.
Some priests offered others a fist bump, which bears a striking resemblance to “rock”. Some extended their hands for a handshake—“paper”. And then there were the rare few that made the “peace” sign, which kind of looks like scissors. The more disciplined among the priests simply made the “prayer hands” and bowed to one another.
Four gestures—albeit unintentional—but one intended meaning. We each wished to express peace to each other, but it got a little chaotic.
Gestures are part of the human language. Anyone that has studied public speaking has had to learn how to integrate gestures into their presentation. Gestures are part of every culture, though some cultures may integrate them more than others. Think of the Japanese culture which integrates bows quite beautifully. Think of Italians who very much use their hands as they speak. I remember being on the 40 in Rome years ago—that’s a bus line there—and seeing an Italian child maybe two or three years old in a stroller expressing displeasure at a parent. She did so with her hand. She did this [gesture] while staring at her mother meaningfully.
Children often learn gestures before learning to speak words. I know of parents who have taught their toddlers to use gestures to express feelings of hunger or of wanting more, like this [gesture] for, “I’m hungry,” or this [gesture] for, “more”. Around the time my nephew learned to walk, he learned how to do the, “mano po,” which literally means, “your hand, please,” and is somewhat common in the Filipino culture, where a someone shows a sign of respect and deference to another by touching the other person’s hand to their forehead.
Gestures aren't limited to ethnic cultures, but also professional cultures. Military servicemen and women of every nation seem to have some kind of salute. I’m sure we’re all familiar with what a salute is, in one form or another. As I’ve said in the past, I’ve always admired a well-rendered salute. It’s honest. It’s not sloppy. It conveys respect, solemnity, and professionalism at a level beyond the reach of spoken words in the mere two seconds it takes to render a salute. It has been the last gesture given to many before their burial.
Now, out of all the gestures we each have integrated into our own vocabulary, there is one that rises above all others. Namely, the Sign of the Cross. Like a salute, this gesture should never be sloppy. It should never be rushed. It should always be done deliberately and meaningfully. As one would not salute in vain, we do not take the Name of our God in vain by rushing through the Sign of the Cross.
The Sign of the Cross is distinctly Catholic. It’s essential to our Catholic culture. We are never ashamed of it. Whether we’re signing ourselves in the privacy of our own homes or praying before a meal in public, we’re never ashamed of it as a soldier should never be ashamed of the salute.
The Sign begins and ends every prayer. It is a prayer in itself. And it conveys that central truth to our faith that can never be fully expressed in words: the truth that the One God is a Trinity of Divine Persons: The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever wondered why we pray in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—rather than in the Names of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?
It would seem to make more grammatical sense to use the plural. But that would be heretical. When we invoke the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we’re not speaking about three beings. We’re speaking about One Being; one God—who has one Name.
I remember my first year in seminary as a pre-theologian. One seminarian had raised his hand for a remark that began with: "Since God is Jesus—," but he wasn't able to finish the phrase. For the sister there who taught that Praying with the Psalms class interrupted him, saying, "God is not Jesus..." And then, as if to make it clear that we weren't mishearing things, she repeated, "God is not Jesus."
Every neck in the room turned the head upon it towards this sister and the room was dead silent. I'm sure we were all wondering the same thing: "What is happening here?"
But then sister continued. "God is not Jesus. But Jesus is God."
This may have been my first inkling that reason ultimately falls short when trying to encapsulate the divine. What kind of universe have we found ourselves in when A = B, but B ≠ A? When the most basic math equation fails to apply to God... (I don't even know how to finish this sentence).
I know now that the Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. But God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Divine Person is not 1/3 of God nor a part of God, but each is 100% God. Confused? Good.
Ultimately, there is a ceiling to what the human mind can grasp, beyond which is the threshold to the Divine. That is the realm of mystery.
But that is the genius of this [Sign of the Cross] prayer. The reality that transcends human reasoning and explanation can nevertheless be conveyed so succinctly—even by young children.
A friend of mine sent me a video clip of her daughter, who was maybe fifteen or sixteen months old at the time. The clip shows her running through a military chapel, knowing her own way to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. And near the end of the video, her mother was able to capture the moment when the little girl genuflected towards the tabernacle.
Any random soldier might not be the most articulate of persons. But he still can convey so much with a sincere salute. Likewise, any child—or adult for that matter—who is no theologian can nevertheless proclaim that great mystery hidden from time immemorial with a sincere Signing of oneself.
In the end, God’s identity is a mystery. It’s the central mystery to our Catholic faith, shared by all Christians. We celebrate this mystery in today’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. We proclaim this mystery by this Sign: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.