I was introduced to this word “sphragis” while studying the history of liturgy. The early Church Fathers called the ancient tradition of the imposition of the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the candidate at Baptism the “rite of the sphragis.” St. Basil wrote in the fourth century that it was among the oral traditions from the Apostles who taught us to mark with the sign of the Cross “those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word referred to a mark impressed on wax to show possession and identity. The sign of the Cross is the sacramental seal that marks the forehead of those who belong to Christ.
They knew the seal brings protection against demons. St. Cyril o Jerusalem wrote in his thirteenth Catechetical Lecture (ca. 350) that when demons see the Sign of the Cross of Christ they “shudder.” He urged Christians not to be ashamed to confess the Crucified and to do it often. “Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils.”
Tertullian wrote in the century before, in his treatise on the Crown, de Corona (ca. 201): “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the Cross.” He was writing about a soldier who refused to wear the crown of the king and serve two masters, a soldier for Christ who was arrested and threatened with martyrdom.
So when you make the Sign of the Cross, realize you join the ancient tradition of the Apostles, celebrated by the Fathers, proclaimed in victory by the martyrs. If you’re like me, you’ve hesitated, especially in times of despair, especially in public. But no more — for it is our identity, our gift, our seal.
Sources and Further Reading
- St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, 27 (oral tradition from the Apostles)
- St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XIII “On the words, Crucified and Buried”, 3 (demons shudder)
- Tertullian, De Corona, III
- Fuller description in The Bible and the Liturgy by Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou, S.J., where I learned about this word.
- Holy Apostle’s College and Seminary Course, The History of the Liturgy, Professor Daniel Van Slyke. Any errors are mine, as a student, not the fault of the instruction. I just wanted to share this inspiring and reassuring gift.