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“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
On Trinity Sunday we remember that these are some of the most often used words in our faith. Use of the sign itself goes back to early Christianity, when in the second century it was used during baptism, during ablutions before praying at fixed prayer times, and in times of temptation. The sign was originally made in some parts of the Christian world with the right-hand thumb across the forehead only. Traces of this remain in our Mass at the beginning of the Gospel, at the giving of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and the use of chrism at Baptisms and Confirmation.
The “right to left” form is used by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Eastern Rite Catholic churches, while “left to right” is used in our own Latin Rite Catholic church. The sign of the cross is also used in Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and some branches of Protestantism. In the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches, the tips of the first three fingers are brought together, and the last two are pressed against the palm. The first three fingers express one’s faith in the Trinity, while the remaining two fingers represent the two natures of Jesus, divine and human.
We might begin the day, or our prayers and activities with the Sign of the Cross, dedicating the day to God for strength in temptations and difficulties. St John Vianney said a genuinely made Sign of the Cross “makes all hell tremble.” We might make the sign of the cross in response to blasphemy, or to seek God’s blessing before or during an event with uncertain outcome. In Hispanic countries, people often sign themselves in public, such as athletes who cross themselves before entering the field or while concentrating for competition.
It’s customary to make the Sign of the Cross using holy water when entering a church. This reminds us of our baptism and that we are entering a sacred place that is set apart from the world outside. The sign of the cross is made at several points in the Mass. We sign ourselves during the introductory greeting, the small signs of the cross before the Gospel, and at the final blessing. We can also do so at the end of the penitential rite. The priest blesses a deacon before he reads the Gospel, he signs the bread and wine at the invocation of the Holy Spirit before the consecration, and blesses the congregation at the conclusion of the Mass. Outside the Mass, a priest or deacon blesses an object or person with a sign of the cross.
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This is Pentecost Sunday! It is the end and the climax of the Easter season that began at the beginning of March. We journeyed through Lent, slowly following the last journey of Jesus to the Cross on our Stations of the Cross. We waved our palms, broke our bread, washed our feet and venerated the Cross in Holy Week, before celebrating the great feast of Easter. Then on Ascension Day the Lord left the physical presence he had shared with us, not to abandon us, but to take on a universal presence so that he could be available to us at all times and in all places.
Now, one with the Father, Jesus pours out on us his Holy Spirit. The apostles – and the world – had never experienced anything like it. The nearest they could come to describe it was that it seemed like fire and wind. They were melted in that fire and blown by that wind out into the world to bring Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life to its four corners.
These last years have been astonishing – unlike any others in a long while. Covid and now the war in Ukraine have been something of a car crash. Just as we perhaps thought we in Europe had settled down in our comfortable civilization, sickness tore through our world, and war broke out in our continent of Europe. We have been pulled up short, forced to ask ourselves where we all are and where we are going. The Synod has, in a strange way, come at the right time to show us that this applies to us in the Church too, we are not immune from this false security.
During this period I have been challenged like everyone else, we priests do not have any slick answers to the questions raised by wars and pandemics. What has given me particular strength and sustenance is you, the people of our 3 Churches. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through our little part of the Church. I cannot count the number of times I have been touched by the faith you have proved in all sorts of circumstances, the hope that has kept you going despite the often seemingly insurmountable problems, and then what Pope Francis would call the tenderness of love that you have shown in so many ways.
On this feast of Pentecost, the feast of the Church, thank you to all who have shown to me the meaning of Pentecost, not just in an Upper Room in Jerusalem, but right here in the suburbs of Cardiff.