By: Kathy Kuczka
The Cross is one of the most ancient symbols of Christianity. Crosses can be seen wherever we look. Crosses hang from rear-view mirrors, in bedrooms, and stand on faraway hills. They are made out of wood, gold and even palm branches. They adorn necks, ear lobes, fingers and wrists. Jewelers prize them and tourist vendors take stock in them. Because the cross has become so commonplace, the central meaning of the Cross can become obscured or taken for granted.
But what happens when this symbol is put into symbolic action? What does it mean when someone is marked with the Sign of the Cross?
At least since the second century, Christians have been marked on the forehead, the breast and the eyes as a sign that they were claimed by Christ. We repeat this long-standing tradition when we celebrate the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens and the Rite of Welcome for those candidates who have already been baptized.
The Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens is a crucial threshold in the lives of those seeking to know God. It stands between the period of inquiry and the period of the catechumenate. For months, maybe even years, these persons have gathered to ask questions about our faith and to share their stories. The signing with the Cross expresses their initial yes to God’s call as they promise to live out the teachings of the Gospel and to follow in the path of Christ. This promise, if taken seriously, is the response to discipleship–a journey which leads to the Cross.
This is why the signing with the Cross takes place after the inquirers’ acceptance of the Gospel. The words of invitation are significant: “Come forward now with your sponsors to receive the sign of your new way of life as catechumens.” It may seem rather odd that a welcoming ceremony celebrating a new way of life would be symbolized by a Cross. It is very telling of what the catechumens can expect as they become immersed into the mystery of Christ, a continual dying to self and rising to new life in Jesus. The signing with the Cross also strengthens them to carry their own Crosses. Observe the text for the first signing: “Receive the Cross on your forehead. It is Christ who now strengthens you with this sign of his love.” The Cross marks them with the “magnitude of Christ’s love and the immensity of Christ’s pain.” They are signed on their foreheads ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands and feet–signifying that their entire beings are strengthened and immersed in the power of the Cross.
This “new way of life” means a new identity. The inquirers are given a new name. From now on, they are called catechumens. They are embraced by the community which now calls them its own. This change of status takes place in the midst of a believing community, most of who were first marked with the Sign of the Cross at their baptism. The signing of the Cross then becomes not only a symbol of a sharing in the life and death of Christ, but an initial sign of communion with the Body of Christ, the assembly. It is the members of the community who sign, acclaim, and affirm the catechumens on their journey. The catechumens are now counted among God’s own children.
Those people who are seeking Full Communion with the Catholic Church (those who have been baptized in other Christian traditions), will celebrate the Rite of Welcome. For them, the signing with the Cross signifies their commitment to deepen their relationship with Christ.
Let us rejoice with our Catechumens and those seeking Full Communion and give thanks to God for this new life in our midst!