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The Sign of the Cross
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The History and Meaning of the Sign of the Cross Among Lutherans

“For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  I Corinthians 2:2

 

The Sign of the Cross

Its History and Meaning

Lutheran liturgical scholar, Paul Lang notes:

Crossing oneself was practiced by Christians from the earliest centuries and may go back to apostolic times.  We know that it was already a common ceremony used daily in A.D. 200, for Tertullian writes: “In all undertakings – when we enter a place or leave it; before we dress; before we bathe; when we take our meals; when we light the lamps in the evening; before we retire at night; when we sit down to read; before each task -- we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”  St. Augustine (A.D. 431) speaks of this custom many times in his sermons and letters.

 

Lang also remarks:

It is one of the traditional ceremonies that was most definitely retained by Luther and the Lutheran Church in the 16th century Reformation.  Luther prescribed it in his Small Catechism under the heading: “How the Head of the Family Should Teach His Household to Bless Themselves in the Morning and in the Evening.”  He says, “In the morning when you rise (In the evening when you go to bed) you shall bless yourself with the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.”  Again in his Large Catechism he recommends that parents should instruct their children to cross themselves for the purpose of recalling their divine Protector in moments of danger, terror, and temptation.  This ceremony is also still authorized in many present-day Lutheran service books [Ceremony & Celebration, p.71f].

 

Although Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross, they do not have a monopoly on the practice.  The sign of the cross is not a uniquely Roman Catholic practice.  It is shared by Christians who maintain something of historic Christian piety and liturgical practice.  As pointed out above, the sign of the cross is a practice continued by Luther, and prescribed by him in the Small Catechism and other writings.

 

To be sure, there are some who make the sign of the cross in an empty or superstitious manner – still the abuse of the practice does not invalidate its proper use.  For some the sign of the cross can also become an outward show of piety to others, a work of self-righteousness.  The sign of the cross is also abused if it is used in that way.  Whether done in an empty way, a superstitious way, or in a self-righteous way, the problem in such cases is not with the gesture but with the attitude of the person practicing it.

 

The basic meaning of the sign of the cross is derived from Holy Baptism (hence Luther’s connection with the Triune invocation of God’s name).  In the Baptism Liturgy the pastor makes the sign of the cross “both upon the forehead and upon the heart” to mark the candidate for Baptism as “one redeemed by Christ the crucified.”  Hence the sign of the cross is a way of remembering one’s Baptism into Christ the crucified and the blessings that come through Him (Romans 6).  That is its most basic meaning and that is how Lutherans interpret it in an evangelical (Gospel) way.  Since it is neither commanded nor forbidden, Christians may or may not use it in freedom.  However, it is not something to be condemned.

 

St. Paul the Apostle exhorts us to “pray without ceasing.”  The sign of the cross assists our prayer in a physical way so that we may remember that Christ is our help in every time of need and that we are baptized into Him.  In Holy Baptism we are joined to our Lord in His death, burial, and resurrection.  In general, the sign of the cross is made to acknowledge that all of our faculties (mind, heart, and soul) and all of our strength (shoulders) are being dedicated to the service of God in the cross of Christ, through Holy Baptism as well as the other means of God’s grace in the Lord Christ alone.

 

Sometimes a physical gesture or postures help us to focus our mind for what is at hand and upon God’s Word.  Bowing, kneeling, folding one’s hands, not to mention the sign of the cross, help us to focus our body and soul for prayer and worship, especially in the context of the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, but also in our personal and family prayers.   We worship “in Spirit and Truth” the Word who became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  And so our worship of the Triune God is inseparably physical and spiritual.  In a Christian view, these two cannot be separated.   God made us physical-spiritual beings (Gen. 2).

 

How and When Is the Sign of the Cross Done?

The sign of the cross is simply done by holding the first two fingers and the thumb of the right hand together at their tips, and with the fourth and fifth fingers folded over the palm together.  Then, with the fingers so joined, the forehead is touched first (“In the name of the Father”), then the chest (“and of the Son”), the right shoulder (“and of the Holy…”), and finally the left shoulder (“Spirit.  Amen.”).  Meanwhile, the head and shoulders are slightly bowed as a sign of servanthood to the Blessed Trinity.  This is the most ancient way.  Some Christians go to the left shoulder first.

 

The thumb, index finger, and middle finger joined symbolize the Holy Trinity while the two remaining fingers symbolize the two natures in Christ (that He is true God and true man).  The movement from right to left is understood to mean that salvation passed from the Jews, who were at the right side of God (the side of honor, belonging to the chosen people) to the Gentiles, who were at His left, or as Paul says, the promise is for the Jew first and then also for the Gentile.

 

In conclusion, the sign of the cross is customarily done during these times:

            + Upon entering and leaving the nave of the church

                + at the Invocation at the beginning of the Divine Service

                + At “and the life of the world to come” in the Creed

                + When receiving the body and blood of the Lord

                + At the words “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer

                + At a Benediction or Dismissal from the altar

                + Before beginning personal and family prayers

                + At the benediction at the end of the liturgy

                + During the opening versicles of Matins and Vespers

                + Whenever it is a helpful reminder of Christ

Note: During the Divine Service, when the Holy Gospel is announced, one may also make a “triple sign of the cross” on the forehead, lips, and heart.  This smaller cross at this point is made with the hand closed, using the tip of the thumb, upon the forehead, lips, and heart, since the Gospel sanctifies our minds, our mouths, and our hearts in Christ’s forgiveness.

The sign of the cross is a symbolic reminder of our salvation in Christ alone, and by grace (a gift) alone. As such it can be a visible proclamation of what we believe, teach, and confess.  

 

Quotations from Martin Luther on the Sign of the Cross

 

1 In the morning, when you rise, make the sign of the cross and say, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” [Small Catechism, Luther’s Morning & Evening Prayers][1]

 

“It is certain that if anyone could speak these words “And the Word became flesh” in true faith and with strong confidence in hours of the greatest temptation, he would be delivered from his trouble and distress; for the devil fears these words when they are uttered by a believer. I have often read and also witnessed it myself that many, when alarmed and distraught, spoke these words “And the Word became flesh” and at the same time made the sign of the cross, and thereby routed the devil.”[2]

 

“You must never doubt that God is aware of your distress and hears your prayer. You must not pray haphazardly or simply shout into the wind. Then you would mock and tempt God. It would be better not to pray at all, than to pray like the priests and monks. It is important that you learn to praise also this point in this verse: “The Lord answered me and set me free.” The psalmist declares that he prayed and cried out, and that he was certainly heard. If the devil puts it into your head that you lack the holiness, piety, and worthiness of David and for this reason cannot be sure that God will hear you, make the sign of the cross, and say to yourself: “Let those be pious and worthy who will! I know for a certainty that I am a creature of the same God who made David. And David, regardless of his holiness, has no better or greater God than I have.”[3]

 

“Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life. Cling to His neck or to His garment; that is, believe that He became man and suffered for you. Cross yourself and say: “I am a Christian and will conquer.” And you will find that death is vanquished. In Acts 2:24 St. Peter says that death was not able to hold Christ, since deity and humanity were united in one Person. In the same way we, too, shall not remain in death; we shall destroy death, but only if we remain steadfast in faith and cling to death’s Destroyer.”[4]

 

“Now, is that not a horrible disease and an abominable sin, one that should terrify us so that we hate Mammon from the heart, make the sign of the cross against him and run away as from the devil? Who would not be terrified to fall into this and to hear this judgment spoken over him? He will be called “God’s enemy,” one who not only despises God but even wishes that God and His Word did not exist, just so that he could have the freedom to do as he pleases and wills, to insult God and vex Him. Figure out for yourself what the fate of such a person will be. He is saddling himself with a man who will eventually prove to be too heavy for him.”[5]

 

 



[1]Tappert, T. G. 2000, c1959. The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Small Cat.: VII, 1). Fortress Press: Philadelphia

[2]Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's Works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 22 (Jn 1:15). Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis

[3]Luther, M. 1999, c1958. Luther's Works, vol. 14 : Selected Psalms III (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 14 (Ps 118:6). Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis

[4]Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's Works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 22 (Jn 3:20). Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis

[5]Luther, M. 1999, c1956. Luther's Works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 21 (Mt 6:25). Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis

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