On Making the Sign of the Cross

Through the millennium physical gestures have accompanied those who have prayed to their “higher power”. Such physical gestures whatever they may be are “signifiers” that the individual is speaking to one who is unseen. It is the attitude of the heart that determines the use of these physical gestures.

In our prayer life as Lutherans Martin Luther encourages Christians to make the sign of the cross. This is seen in his Morning Prayer where he encourages:

Morning Prayer

In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say:

In the name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may also say this little prayer:

I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, You dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen. (The same encouragement and format is also found in Luther’s Evening Prayer.)

To make the sign of the cross one may observe this helpful illustrated example found in a most recent and delightful publication from CPH.[1] The physical actions are explained as follows:

“Touch your head at the naming of the Father; then bring your hand to the middle of your chest (over your heart) at the naming of the Son. At the naming of the Holy Spirit, touch your right shoulder and then your left shoulder.”[2]

Making the sign of the X cross in no manner makes one a superior Christian, more Lutheran, or somehow more confessional than those who for their own reasons chose not to. Such an action is to be entirely left up to Christian freedom with no coercion.

This “touching,” or “marking” the forehead is first seen in Scripture with the High Priest as he carried out his duties in the Tabernacle. “You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead…” (Ex 28:36-38a). It is in and through our Baptisms that we have been declared priests to serve the Lord Jesus. As priests “we are encouraged to be the people of God, the royal priesthood, and to let the vitality of the Lord flow in our daily living in service to our neighbors, both for their temporal needs and their eternal salvation”[3] This priestly identity upon our foreheads whereby we serve the risen Christ is seen in the New Testament which will be addressed shortly.

This theme of being marked upon our foreheads continues in Ezekiel. “And the LORD said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it’” (Ez 9:4). The righteous were spared from death and destruction (v. 5) when they received the “mark,” upon their foreheads. This “mark,” is a translation of the last letter of the ancient Hebrew alphabet called “tau.” In the ancient script it was made either in the form of a plus sign “+”, or, that of a multiplication sign, an “x”.[4] In the mind of God Christ was slain on a cross before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:20; Rev 13:8) so it should not surprise us that this mark of the “tau” bears an uncanny resemblance to a cross!

This mark—this “tau”—which sets us apart from destruction and for eternal life with Christ is referenced in the Apocalypse. It is placed upon the foreheads of the baptized who are protected from the destruction and judgment that comes upon the ungodly while the victory song of the redeemed is sung. Our priestly status is seen in the subsequent verses:

  • “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev 7:3).
  • “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev 9:4).
  • “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1).
  • “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4).

This “mark” which sets us apart as being holy to the Lord is symbolically placed upon us in the rite of Holy Baptism. Prior to the actual washing with water the pastor “… makes the sign of the holy cross upon the forehead and heart of each candidate while saying:   Name   , receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your X forehead and upon your X heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.’”[5] Shortly thereafter the new birth in the womb of Holy Baptism occurs when the thrice holy name of Yahweh is spoken with the application of water and said individual is set apart from destruction for life eternal.

As far as I am able to determine there are seven physical actions or movements embraced by people the world over to accompany prayer. They are:

  1. Upstretched hands
  2. Bowing the head
  3. Closing one’s eyes
  4. Folding one’s hands
  5. Kneeling
  6. Prostrating oneself on the ground
  7. Making the sign of the X cross

All seven forms of prayer have in the church’s history been employed at different times and in their proper context are quite acceptable. Today, six of these forms are employed by non-Christians. In today’s context the seventh form; “making the sign of the X cross” is unmistakably and uniquely Christian which cannot be said of the other forms. Making the sign of the cross is so uniquely Christian it would never be used by a non-Christian. It is a “signifier” much as is a woman’s burqa in Islam or a clerical shirt among liturgical Christians. When seen in the public market burqas and clerical shirts draw eyes and subtle shifts of the head. The employment of these signifiers speaks volumes. Might not making the sign of the X cross do the same in bearing unmistakable witness to the resurrected Christ?

People in our nation are becoming more and more spiritual as Christianity continues to decline. Opportunities to witness abound. Perhaps there is more to Luther’s encouragement to make the sign of the X cross than what would initially seem to us—especially in light of the rich Biblical witness and the presence of Islam in southeastern Europe in Luther’s day. In conclusion I commend these gentle words from that most recent delightful publication from CPH:

Again, to make the sign of the cross is a matter of Christian freedom. You may or may not feel comfortable doing it yourself, or you may not do it as often as your neighbor. That’s okay. But when the sign of the cross is made, whether by pastor or people, let this be the proclamation: Christ has died for your sins upon the cross; in Baptism he shares that cross with you; because you share in His cross, you are a child of God and are precious in His sight.[6]

 

 



[1] Scot Kinnaman, gen. ed., Lutheranism 101 (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010): 231-232.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert C. Baker, gen. ed., Lutheran Spirituality: Life as God’s Child (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 246.

[4] “Study Note Ezekiel 9:4,” in The Lutheran Study Bible, Edward Engelbrecht, gen., ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), p. 1321, Ezekiel 9:4.

[5] Lutheran Service Book, prepared by the Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), Rite of Holy Baptism pp. 268 – 271.

[6] Kinnaman, ibid.

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