Just before the gospel reading on Sunday during Mass, the priest says, “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds. Then the priest says, “A reading from the holy gospel according to [whomever].” After the people reply with, “Glory to you Lord,” we all perform some sort of gesture where we trace a small cross on our foreheads, lips, and heart with the thumb of our right hand. I’ve done this all my life and never questioned it until now.
(1) Why do we do it?
(2) When and where did this start?
(3) How widespread is the practice?
(4) I can’t find a reference to this act in any missal, where is it documented?
(5) Sometimes our pastor will utter some words along with the gesture during the Mass. Is this some old thing that used to be part of the Mass and isn’t anymore but we’re still clinging to it or is it some new thing people recently invented (like holding hands during the Our Father, etc.)?
Because it was by His death on the cross that Christ redeemed the world, we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts at the beginning of the Gospel. These are the only times we use the Sign of the Cross during Mass.
For more information this site has articles which are easy to read and can answer your questions about posture etc.
The only official document which describes this gesture, as far as I know, is the “Ceremonial of Bishops” (a liturgical book put out by ‘the Vatican’ that describes what liturgies with a bishop should look like). It’s paragraph #74. (I am still actually using a book and don’t have an internet link!)
So, it’s legitimate for us to do it and not like the holding hands business.
I am glad you pointed it out. I had meant to finish it with the word readings I think, had a more urgent problem so I hit send. Our dog had a seizure and my husband was hollering for help. I hit send instead of finishing my sentence. I forgot about it till you pointed it out. Sorry for the confusion. :o
So, from the responses so far, I’ve gathered that it is not a bad thing to do but no one has told me yet whether this gesture is a required part of the Mass or is merely a harmless custom, although I do suspect it’s the latter. If it is a custom, I’d like to know when it started (the laity doing it, and I’m not talking about when in the “early Church” it was first introduced in some form) and how widespread is it.
Also, I’ve heard on Catholic Answers Live many times, that if the Church doesn’t say TO do something, it usually means that it is not OK to do it. For example, the rationale I’ve heard used in arguments opposed to the holding hands during the Our Father is that it is wrong because it is not written that you’re supposed to do it. That argument seems not to apply to the “Gospel Gesture”. Please, somebody explain to me this apparent contradiction.
Gestures too involve our bodies in prayer. The most familiar of these is the Sign of the Cross with which we begin Mass and with which, in the form of a blessing, the Mass concludes. Because it was by his death on the cross that Christ redeemed humankind, we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts at the beginning of the Gospel. Fr. Romano Guardini, a scholar and professor of liturgy wrote of this gesture:
When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small, cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us all at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us … (Sacred Signs, 1927)
I appreciate your response but it doesn’t clear my confusion.
The language of the article, for which you provided the link, is of explanation not of instruction. It tells me what the gestures mean but doesn’t tell me I must do them. It is clear to me that you can’t draw any conclusions about how “official” the gestures are from the Conference paper.
If I am supposed to interpret the writing as instruction, then I and all the congregations I have ever prayed with are guilty of not striking our breasts during the pennitential rite.
Finally, I haven’t seen any evidence that these gestures (regardless of their status as official or not) are Churchwide. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops determine “policy” as it were for the Church in the U.S. but not in other counties. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe these gestures exist in other countries, just that I have no evidence of it.
Maybe Karl can help you find written documentation. All I know is I have done it for all of my life so if someone changed it it was before my time. I was born and raised iin the Catholic church long before Vatican II. The Latin Mass to the new order of the mass never changed it if that is what your asking. I’m still doing it with everyone as we always have. I would ask my grandmother,she taught me my faith, but she has been dead for 50 years. She would be 130 years old by now if she were living.
Sorry I could not be of more help,
I’ll give this one more shot for you. I am old but not this old.
4th century onward. The only change in form is slight. And that one dates back to the Middle ages and that is not the one we use for the Gospel. We use the thumb.
Pardon me. I should have been clearer in my response. In the “Ceremonial of Bishops,” which is an official, legitimate liturgical document, paragraph #74 says: “…The bishop signs himself in the same way on the forehead, lips, and breast, and all present do the same.”
In addition to the Ceremonial of Bishops the new GIRM paragraph 134 states:
At the ambo, the priest opens the book and, with hands joined says, Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you)
, and the people respond, Et cum spiritu tuo (And also with you). Then he says, Lectio sancti Evangelii (A reading from the holy Gospel), making the sign of the cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well.
I don’t know if the original Latin includes “which everyone else does as well” since I have not looked it up and tried to translate. My understanding was that it was a gesture of the priest which the people over time picked up. I have not reference for this except my memory. I suppose I could have had a dream about it but I don’t think so. Since my copy of the new GIRM has the adaptations of the US bishops worked into it, looking at the original Latin might give an insight to my memory.
I must confess here in the opening statement that I have not read all of the posts to this thread. However, the small crosses made on the forehead, lips, and heart were a definite part of the Tridentine Mass back as far as my memory goes which is into the mid-30’s. Therefore, it is not a new gesture.
It corresponds to a prayer, in the Tridentine Mass, said by the priest immediately before reading the Gospel, while bowing in the middle of the altar (facing tabernacle) and with his hands folded, which starts in Latin: Munda cor meum. ac labia mea, omnipotens Deus,…
It reads: Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Almighty God, Who didst cleanse with a burning coal the lips of the prophet Isaias; and vouchsafe in Thy loving kindness so to purify me that I may be enabled worthily to announce Thy Holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Vouchsafe, O Lord, to bless me. The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that I may worthily and becomingly announce His Gospel. Amen.
It is an old, traditional gesture, and is not required. It is not routinely taught, for example, to young people in religious education. However like many of these optional, age-old customs, it is worth practicing when you understand the meaning. The exact words I was taught to silently think as I make the gesture, which correspond to the areas where we make the miniature cross with the thumb, are: “Open my mind, my lips and my heart to your Word.” Here is the neat part: we are making a silent prayer, just by means of this gesture, to not only understand the Gospel (mind) and embrace it personally (heart) but to also proclaim it (lips)! - Agnes
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