Signum Crucis in the Mass
One of the changes made by the post-Vatican II reformers to the Mass was the elimination of many of the signs of the cross, which were seen as superfluous and repetitive.
Now, it is the case that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass contains abundantly more signs of the cross than does the Novus Ordo - forty-eight, I have heard (I've also heard 40). But does the fact that this sacred gesture is repeated so often mean that it is superfluous? Is it a medieval "encrustation" that has been uselessly repeated and multiplied until it has lost all meaning?
Surprisingly, this is the same argument made by Protestants regarding memorized prayers and "vain repetition": that the very fact of repetition is what makes a gesture "vain." Saying 50 Hail Mary's is a vain repetition Protestants will tell us; so is making 48 signs of the cross, the liturgical reformers insisted. But just as the argument is false with regards to the Rosary and memorized prayers, so is it equally groundless with regards to the sign of the cross.
In the first place, let us turn to the writings of Msgr. Jean-Joseph Gaume, whose writings on the sign of the cross in the 1860's sparked a renewed interest in the Church's most ancient prayer and led to the establishment of an indulgence for simply making this sign of the cross, issued in July, 1863. Msgr, Gaume in dealing with this objection of vain repetitions, says:
"Behold what the Church does, when, in the person of the priest, she ascends the altar. Armed with omnipotence which has been given her, she comes to command, no longer a creature, but the Creator; no longer a man, but God. At her voice, the heavens are opened; the Word again becomes incarnate, and renews all the mysteries of His life, death, and resurrection. Is there an act which ought to be performed with more solemn gravity? An act from which should be more carefully banished everything that might be foreign or superfluous?
Now, in the course of this, the action, by excellence, the Church, more than ever, multiplies the sign of the cross; she clothes herself with the sign of the cross; she goes through it with the sign of the cross; she repeats it so frequently that the number of times would seem to be exaggerated, were it not so profoundly mysterious. Do you know how many times the priest makes the sign of the cross during Mass? He makes it forty-eight times! I am wrong; throughout the whole of the august sacrifice, the priest is himself a living sign of the cross.
And the Catholic Church, the grave teacher of nations, the great mistress of truth, does she amuse herself by repeating so frequently, in her most solemn act, a sign, useless, superstitious, or of minor importance? If your companions believe this, they are wrong to call themselves unbelievers; it is not credulity that is wanting of them (The Sign of the Cross, Loreto Publications, pp. 12-13)."
Note that Msgr. Gaume states that the very fact that the sign of the cross is so frequently utilized in the Mass is the strongest argument that it is not a useless repetition. Since the Mass is the most solemn act of worship offered by the Church, everything contained in its rites ought to be uniquely suited to the dignity of the Sacrifice that occurs therein; the fact that the sign of the cross not only appears but appears with great frequency means that its repetition is specifically suited for the Church's highest act of worship.
St. Thomas Aquinas, too, addresses this very question in the Summa when responding to the objection, "Further, the ceremonies performed in the sacraments of the Church ought not to be repeated. Consequently it is not proper for the priest to repeat the sign of the cross many times over this sacrament." Notice how Aquinas says that every sign of the cross is placed "strategically" to coincide with whenever the mystery of Christ's sacrifice is mentioned; thus there is nothing superfluous or meaningless. Aquinas says in STh III,q. 83, a. 5, ad 3:
The priest, in celebrating the mass, makes use of the sign of the cross to signify Christ's Passion which was ended upon the cross. Now, Christ's Passion was accomplished in certain stages. First of all there was Christ's betrayal, which was the work of God, of Judas, and of the Jews; and this is signified by the triple sign of the cross at the words, "These gifts, these presents, these holy unspotted sacrifices."
Secondly, there was the selling of Christ. Now he was sold to the Priests, to the Scribes, and to the Pharisees: and to signify this the threefold sign of the cross is repeated, at the words, "blessed, enrolled, ratified." Or again, to signify the price for which He was sold, viz. thirty pence. And a double cross is added at the words---"that it may become to us the Body and the Blood," etc., to signify the person of Judas the seller, and of Christ Who was sold.
Thirdly, there was the foreshadowing of the Passion at the last supper. To denote this, in the third place, two crosses are made, one in consecrating the body, the other in consecrating the blood; each time while saying, "He blessed."
Fourthly, there was Christ's Passion itself. And so in order to represent His five wounds, in the fourth place, there is a fivefold signing of the cross at the words, "a pure Victim, a holy Victim, a spotless Victim, the holy bread of eternal life, and the cup of everlasting salvation."
Fifthly, the outstretching of Christ's body, and the shedding of the blood, and the fruits of the Passion, are signified by the triple signing of the cross at the words, "as many as shall receive the body and blood, may be filled with every blessing," etc.
Sixthly, Christ's threefold prayer upon the cross is represented; one for His persecutors when He said, "Father, forgive them"; the second for deliverance from death, when He cried, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" the third referring to His entrance into glory, when He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit"; and in order to denote these there is a triple signing with the cross made at the words, "Thou dost sanctify, quicken, bless."
Seventhly, the three hours during which He hung upon the cross, that is, from the sixth to the ninth hour, are represented; in signification of which we make once more a triple sign of the cross at the words, "Through Him, and with Him, and in Him."
Eighthly, the separation of His soul from the body is signified by the two subsequent crosses made over the chalice.
Ninthly, the resurrection on the third day is represented by the three crosses made at the words---"May the peace of the Lord be ever with you."
In short, we may say that the consecration of this sacrament, and the acceptance of this sacrifice, and its fruits, proceed from the virtue of the cross of Christ, and therefore wherever mention is made of these, the priest makes use of the sign of the cross.
Just as is the case with Protestant objections to the Rosary being a jumble of useless repetitions, so the case of the progressives disdain for the sign of the cross: the Church does nothing that is useless or vain, especially in her most solemn acts of worship, and the frequency with which the Ave Marias of the Rosary or the Signum Crucis of the Mass are repeated are not indicators of their superfluity but rather of their immense importance in the Church's piety and worship.