In Hoc Signo Vinces

Constantine, before his great victory at Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.), which brought him to power as the first Christian Roman Emperor, saw in the sky a cross with the words “In Hoc Signo Vinces” – “in this sign you shall conquer.” The victory of every Christian is achieved always through the power of the Cross. It was with this sign that the Holy League defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. Pope Pius V sent Don John of Austria a huge banner bearing the figure of Christ Crucified, to unfurl on the day of the battle. The pope asked all of Christian Europe to pray the rosary for victory, and the soldiers of the Holy League also carried and prayed their rosaries.

Even though the Christian ships were outnumbered, they were victorious, and Europe was saved from Muslim conquest. Pope Pius V instituted a new Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the battle, which is now celebrated by the Catholic Church as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

After the discovery of the True Cross in the year 326 by St. Helena, her son the Emperor Constantine, issued a decree forbidding the cross to be used thereafter in the execution of criminals. From then on, the veneration which the Christians had shown for it in secret from the beginning, received a passionate new fervor; and since that auspicious day nothing is more characteristic of the followers of Christ than the veneration they show for the sacred instrument of man’s redemption.

As a religious symbol, the sign of the cross is a sacramental, and the principal one in use among Christians. In the early ages of the Church it was made with the thumb of the right hand, most commonly on the forehead; but it was also made on any part of the body. The constant use of the sign of the cross by the first Christians, and, much more, the fact that they were surrounded by heathens to whom the sacred sign would have betrayed their faith and put them in danger of persecution, or would have exposed the sign itself to mockery, rendered it necessary for them to make it in such a manner as not to be observed.

The devotion of the early Christians to the sign of the cross was extraordinary, and it attests the power they found to dwell in that sacred emblem. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, cries out: “O Lord, Thou hast bequeathed to us three imperishable things: the chalice of Thy blood, the sign of the cross, and the example of Thy sufferings!” Tertullian bears witness to the frequent use of the sign of the cross by the Christians of the second century: “At every motion, and every step,” he says, “entering in or going out, when dressing, bathing, going to meals, lighting the lamps, sleeping, or sitting, whatever we do, or whithersoever we go, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.” St. Basil writes: “To make the sign of the cross over those who place their hope in Jesus Christ is the first and best known thing among us.”

It was with good reason that the early Christians paid so great reverence to the sign of the cross. They had learned from experience that it is the symbol of power; as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “This sign is a powerful protection. It is gratuitous, because of the poor; easy, because of the weak; a benefit from God, the standard of the faithful, the terror of demons.” Armed with this sacred sign the martyrs went forth to battle with the wild beasts of the amphitheatre; walked calmly to the stake to be burned; bowed their necks to the sword, or exposed their bodies to the lash. They braved the terrors of the dungeon, or went willingly into exile. Even tender virgins and children defied the power of the tyrant, and suffered death in its most terrible forms; while thousands sought the lonely deserts to practice a life-long penance, with no companions but the wild beasts, sustained and encouraged by the same never failing source of supernatural strength.

We are assured by the Christians of all ages, but especially by those of the first centuries, that we have so powerful a weapon as the sign of the cross at our command, it is much to be regretted that we should make so little use of it. Never did the world array before the child of God enemies so numerous or so insidious as at the present time. They assail him on every side ; and not with the sword or with fire, but with false philosophy, with pride of intellect, with religious indifference, with materialism ; against which it is more difficult to combat for a lifetime than it would be to gain the martyr’s crown in a momentary struggle in the amphitheatre.

If the first Christians, trained in the school of the apostles and their immediate successors, regarded as necessary the frequent use of the sign of the cross, why should we all but abandon it? Are we stronger than they? Is not the very opposite the truth? Why, then, do we not return to the pious custom of our fathers in the faith? Why disarm ourselves in the very presence of the enemy?

Still more deserving of censure are those who indeed make the sign of the cross, but make it carelessly. If a person were to stand fifteen minutes at the door of almost any of our churches on a Sunday morning, and look at the motions gone through by not a few of those who enter, he would be safe in concluding that if they were reproduced on paper they might as readily be taken for a Chinese manuscript as for anything else; but it would require a stretch of the imagination to see in many of them what they were intended to represent. It may be seriously doubted whether such careless persons receive the graces or gain the indulgences attached to a proper use of this sacred sign. It is indeed true that there is a tendency to do mechanically what a person has to do often: but for that very reason, if for no other, particular attention should be bestowed on such things. A careful examination of the manner in which they make the sign of the cross would be productive of good to many persons.

But what shall be said of those who are ashamed to make the sign of the cross? We should not, on the one hand, parade what is sacred unnecessarily before the world, on account of the disposition there is in so many persons to scoff at whatever others regard as holy; but when circumstances require it, we should not, on the other hand, hesitate to sign ourselves with the symbol of man’s redemption. The sign of the cross inspires us with respect for ourselves by teaching us our true dignity. It reminds us that we are the brothers of Jesus Christ. It sanctifies our members with the sanctification which it derived from His. It stamps the unity of God on our forehead, the seat of the mind; it seals our heart and breast with the remembrance of the love of the Father; it strengthens our shoulders to bear the cross of the Son; and it maintains an unbroken union of love with the three Divine Persons by means of the Holy Ghost.

Says St. Ephraim: “The sign of the cross is the invincible armor of the Christian. Soldier of Christ, let this armor never leave you, either by day or by night, at any moment, or in any place ; without it undertake nothing. Whether you be asleep or awake, watching or walking, eating or drinking, sailing on sea or crossing rivers, have this breastplate ever on you. Adorn and protect each of your members with this victorious sign, and nothing can injure you. There is no buckler so powerful against the darts of the enemy. At the sign of this the infernal powers, affrighted and trembling, take to flight.””

And St. John Chrysostom adds: “never leave your house without making the sign of the cross. It will be to you a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress. Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you covered with such powerful armor. Let this sign teach you that you are a soldier, ready to combat against the demons and ready to fight for the crown of justice. Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and resuscitated the universe. Would you, then, doubt its power?”

Excerpt from:
“The Sacramentals of The Holy Catholic Church”
Rev. A. A. Lambing (1896)

The extracts from the Fathers, are from
“The Sign of the Cross in the Nineteenth Century,” by Mgr. Gaume. (1873)

 

 

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