To make the sign of the cross is to pronounce a visible and public yes to Him who died for us and is risen.-Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address at Castel Gandalfo, Sept. 11, 2005
Now, that seems overly didactic and you're probably thinking, "I learned that already, in first grade. Stop talking down to me..."
The sign of the Cross is firstly the simplest gesture in prayer, to use Ratzinger's terms. He says,
"It is a way of confessing Christ crucified with one's very body...To seal oneself with the sign of the Cross is a visible and public Yes to him who suffered for us...By signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on."A shield. Yes, it is, for it is said that Satan cringes when we make the sign of the Cross reverently, for it reminds him of his defeat.
I find this selection from the Gospel of Mark, quoted by Ratzinger, interesting; it is chapter 8, verse 34. Jesus says, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." The cross is still a confession of Christ, even if the words are not there (Simon Peter does not declare Jesus to be the Christ until the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, and I'm pretty sure this scene happens before then), and even if the Apostles do not understand the prediction of the crucifixion that was given in the preceding sermons. The cross is for all time, and indeed, the meeting of Heaven and Earth in the Holy Mass is for all time; it is the one point, if that is the right word, where God meets our temporal existence, and they become one.
The *really* awesome yet theologically-heavy point (one only that can be made by Ratzinger in the best of the Nouvelle Théologie) is this:
"The Fathers belonging to the Greek cultural world were more directly affected by another discovery. In the writings of Plato, they found the remarkable idea of a cross inscribed upon the cosmos (cf. Timaeus 34ab and 36bc)..."Apparently this is due to an astronomical occurrence. But it is incredible nonetheless. In his acknowledgement of the ontological reality that shaped our universe, Ratzinger says:
"The Cross of Golgotha is foreshadowed in the structure of the universe itself. The instrument of torment on which the Lord died is written into the structure of the universe. The cosmos speaks to us of the Cross, and the Cross solves for us the enigma of the cosmos. It is the real key to all reality. History and cosmos belong together. When we open our eyes, we can read the message of Christ in the language of the universe, and conversely, Christ grants us understanding of the message of creation."One point directly related to the state of the liturgy in the post-conciliar era is that there are few actions, but those are being artificially multiplied. I'm not sure that is the best word there. For the Fathers of Vatican II, multiplication meant an action was repeated needlessly. The sign of the Cross is a direct reminder at Holy Mass of what is happening on the altar: the Sacrifice of Calvary. During the traditional Roman Canon, the priest makes the sign of the Cross nearly sixty times. The issue of making it after the Consecration is one thing, and is open for debate (though I think that in a century or so the gestures will be fully restored). To eliminate this basic yet profound sign of prayer in large part during the central action of the Mass-the Canon, referred to by Ratzinger as the Eucharistic Prayer- is another.
Anyways, the actions he are referring to are those external actions which become a theatrical performance and the essence of the Mass instead of the Mass itself. It misses the point of the drama of salvation. Sigh.