Why Do We Make the Sign of the Cross
As a boy growing up in the “Heart of Dixie” way down in the Deep South, we Lutherans knew we were not Baptists, that’s for sure, and they never let us forget it either. After all, we drank, they did not. And we sure knew we were not Roman Catholics! Of that we were sure, but most of our fellow protestants were not. We baptized babies, they did not. As one Baptist lady put it to me once, “Oh, you are a Lutheran? That’s just like being Roman Catholic, except you only have two sacraments and your priests can get married, right?”
On the other hand, the deeply anti-Roman feelings in LCMS Lutheranism led me to believe that anyone who chanted the liturgy was a bit “Romish” and surely, the “dead give away” somebody was Roman Catholic was when they made the sign of the cross. We scoffed at such “superstitious nonsense.”
Now, can the sign of the cross be superstitious? Of course, but so can having a Bible sitting on a table never opened, and a picture of the Savior piously displayed on the wall “for good luck” or whatever. Anything good and useful can be used poorly or inappropriately. And so we have to realize that abuse does not rule out the proper use of something.
As I matured I began to study the history of the Church, and discovered way, way, way back in the earliest years of the Church, tracing the sign of the cross on oneself, most likely on the forehead, was a deeply ancient Christian practice. Then I noticed one day that a rather famous Lutheran theologian recommended making the sign of the cross when waking up in the morning, going to bed at night, and at every meal, before and after, during the day. You might know this man: Martin Luther, who indicates this is to be our practice in the Small Catechism. My eyes were slowly opened to the reality that what I often had dismissed as “Roman Catholic” was simply something Christians had been doing for millennia. The sign of the cross being one of those things. Pastor Todd Peperkorn prepared a nice short article on the sign of the cross, which I think you’ll enjoy reading. I recommend you add Pastor Peperkorn’s blog to your feed reader. His is one of so many wonderful blogs Lutheran pastors provide for our reading and edification.
Why Do We Make the Sign of the Cross
From time to time I am asked the question, “why do we make the sign of the cross? Isn’t that Catholic?” It’s a good and reasonable question, and I’m always happy to answer it.
Making the sign of the cross is catholic, but not simply in the Roman Catholic sense. Remember that the word “catholic” with a small-c means simply “universal” or “churchwide.” It doesn’t mean necessarily “Roman” Catholic. Making the sign of the cross by Christians almost since the time of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. It has probably been around as a Christian practice as long as folding one’s hands to pray or saying before meal prayers. So in terms of its historic practice, Christians have been making the sign of the cross as long as there have been crosses.
The purpose and symbolism behind it is pretty simple and beautiful. When you are baptized, the pastor says these words over you “Receive the sign of the + holy cross both upon your forehead and upon your heart, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified” (Rite of Holy Baptism, Lutheran Service Book, p. 268). That was a part of the Baptism rite in Lutheran Worship (1982), as well as the “old” hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941). So the pastor literally makes the sign of the cross over the newly baptized, because in baptism we put on Christ, are buried with Him in His death, and we now bear His holy name.
When we make the sign of the cross, what we are doing is A) remembering our Baptism; B) Remembering Jesus’ death for our sins; C) Confessing to the world that I am not ashamed to be known as a disciple of Jesus; and D) Holding up the cross of Christ as the central core of my identity.
Martin Luther thought this practice so important that he included it in the Small Catechism. Making the sign of the cross is included as a part of both the morning and evening prayers.
So how do you make the sign of the cross? You put your thumb, index and middle finger on your right hand together (the Holy Trinity) and begin at your forehead. You then make a line with your hand from your forehead to the middle of your chest. You then raise your hand parallel with your sternum, and make the “cross” part from going from the left breast to the right.
Must the Christian make the sign of the cross? Certainly not. This is a matter of personal freedom and piety. Christians for centuries have found it beneficial to make a physical sign of the cross, but if that is not helpful do you, don’t do it and don’t feel bad about it. At the same time, I would ask that you not judge those who do make the sign of the cross. It is a matter of freedom, both ways.
God’s richest blessings to you in Christ, as we live under His cross.