As a Jewish person, crosses have always been foreign to me. They never appeared in our houses or literature, and up until I was 11, Christmas was never an issue for us as we lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. And even when we became more aware of Christmas, it was about trees and Santa Claus, and not the birth of the Messiah. He was a far off concept, and he stayed that way, even when I married a (less-than-practicing) Catholic, and had children who celebrated Christmas and Easter.
While my sister had to navigate alternate Thanksgivings and Christmas with her in-laws, my mtoher-in-law’s foreign birth gave Thanksgiving to my family, and Christmas to hers. We were one of the only married couples we knew who didn’t have that conflict, and after my father-in-law’s passing, my mother-in-law and brother-in-law spent Thanksgiving with my family.
My mother-in-law’s house did not have crosses, and she didn’t go to church as far as I knew, but she loved the Christmas holiday. It wasn’t until after my conversion that she had some religious items for me, some of which she’d carried with her from Ireland so long ago.
But still no crosses.
The first tiny cross I bought myself was a charm for a bracelet, and it was just for me. I showed no one. It was really a reminder of my time in the church pews, and it still made me a little uncomfortable as if I were treading on some unknown superstition.
Even in childhood, I’d cross my heart and hope to die (which even then I found morbid) or cross my fingers, and of course, we’ve all crossed things off of a list or became cross or crossed on someone’s bad side, but I would never cross myself.
I didn’t have crosses to bear or the need to carry a cross. I had problems and situations that needed attention and concentration and help from a Higher Power, but they were not crosses. That concept wasn’t in me. Now, when I use those terms, they seem ironic rather than in the spirit that most people mean them.
When I began in the RCIA program, I still did not attend Sunday mass. I only went during the week when there were less people to “judge” me, and even after learning how to cross myself in class in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, I still didn’t do it in the pews.
Until one day I did.
You don’t realize how often you cross yourselves during the regular mass service until youy’re the only one not doing it.
– wen you walk in the gathering space and dip your fingers in the holy water font and cross yourself, commemorating your baptism
– at the opening of the mass
– at the Gospel reading over your forehead, your lips, and your heart
– at the end to close the mass
– plus the several other times that oldtimers (by oldtimers, I’m not necessarily referring to age as to experience) feel the need, after the penitential rite, after the amen, right before the Eucharist, when receiving the Eucharist, both the body and the blood
Going through the motions, mumbling the words until they come naturally, and leaving out the parts that feel like a blasphemy of your…my upbringing. I think I felt as though I were betraying my ancestors; throwing my Jewishness aside for this new, popular, all te kids are doing it religion.
The first time I had a cross put on me was on Ash Wednesday – that first one. Since it’s not a sacrament, I need not have been baptized to participate and receive ashes, and someone put them on me when I entered the church. I felt it, not just the ash, but the feelings, the emotions, the ancient ritual that belonged me to this group.
The first time I crossed myself at the opening of the mass I did it unconsciously. Tere I was, listening to the announcements, the greeting, and when the priest said the opening, I just did it. I immediately knew something was different; something had changed, and after that I continued to do it.
The same thing happened for the three successive crosses at the Gospel reading. When it happened, I didn’t think about it; I just did it, and then my heart did a little leap of rejoicing that I’d cleared that milestone.
After that, it seemed a bit more natural, and I just continued to do it as the times struck me.
A couple of years ago for my father’s Yartzeit, I realized that I never know what to say; I don’t know the Hebrew prayers. Finally, on this night, I crossed myself and said the eternal rest prayer that we say before mass. I cried. It felt so right.
In Ireland, there were times that I needed, wanted to pray, but I’d always get stuck. I’m not good about coming up wit my own prayers. I do grasp onto what i know. So at St. Elen’s Well, I said the Our Father and a Hail Mary, and I crossed myself. I gave her a coin, and I drank a bit of her water. At St. Olcan’s Well, I did the same, although I didn’t drink that water – too dirty, and it’s not meant for drinking, it’s a topical. I crossed myself at St. Therese de Lisieux and lit a candle.
I have a crucifix hanging in my living room that I received from my priest and church after receiving my first sacraments at the Easter vigil. It was the first overt symbol that I displayed in my house. Publicly. I’ve now added to it with a cross my daughter made at vacation bible school, and a print of Mary and St. Kateri done by Brother Mickey McGrath. I have other little things scattered around my tiny office that I look to and smile, and sometimes pray with.
The point I think is that the things that are meant to be will come with time, just like my crosses came wen they were supposed to; not when I told them to. They came to me rather than my claiming them, and when it was right, it felt right.