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.

Pastor Karl Weber

About Pastor Karl Weber

Karl has been serving St. Paul’s Richville LC and St. John’s, Ottertail, MN since Labor Day, 2004. He was raised in the Roman Church receiving his BA from Fordham University. Before going to seminary he was a computer programmer in Minneapolis. He served as a short term missionary in Guatemala and Kenya, East Africa. He spent time as a member of the ELCA and studied two years at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN pursing his M. Div. before transferring to the LCMS for theological reasons and continuing his studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He was ordained in 1991 and earned his D. Min. in May 2002 from the same institution. He has contributed study notes to The Lutheran Study Bible. He enjoys deer hunting, going to the gym, swimming, and reading. He is married to Mary and has five wonderful children.

Comments

On Making the Sign of the Cross — 32 Comments

  1. Here’s a question I was asked that I’ve never been able to find a “definitive” answer to: For those wishing to make the sign of the cross during the divine service, at what moments would that be most appropriate? Invocation, benediction, and ???

  2. Thank you for that lesson. That adds depth and meaning to the practice which I have become more comfortable with and grown to appreciate. I use it during the invocation, benediction, creed, blessing after communion, and Lord’s Prayer.

    As a fun side track, you can see the sign used in popular Hollywood movies. I’ve only seen it used one time, “right shoulder left shoulder”. In “Enemy at the Gate”, a movie about World War II Stalingrad, a Russian soldier (ironically) shortly before shot by a sniper, uses the “right shoulder left shoulder rather than the left to right used by Catholics.

  3. @Jeff Samelson #1
    I have a brochure from another congregation that gives a detailed explanation of appropriate places to make the sign of the cross, but I can’t remember from whence it came. It lists the invocation, the absolution, the Gloria in Excelsis (in the middle of the trinitarian formula), end of the Creed, the Sanctus (at “blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord”), seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer, at the elevation of the host and the cup in the Words of Institution, the Pax Domini, before and after receiving Christ’s body and blood, at the dismissal from the Lord’s Supper, and the Benediction.

  4. Jeff,

    The LSB writers included a little cross symbol at places where people traditionally make the sign of the cross. There are a number of other times as well as Joe indicated above, as well as others. Really, any time you want to remember your baptism. :)

  5. It’s very interesting that you Americans make the sign of the cross from right to left, since in Finland it’s the other way around (among those of us who actually make the sign). Around here, the more devout Eastern Orthodox are spotted miles away when they pass one of their churches and make the sign.

  6. Just don’t be so energetic that your elbow hits your neighbor.
    Or so conspicuous that others think you are doing it to be seen doing it.

  7. Joe, David, Sandra, thanks for the input! Clearly, though — and appropriately for us as Lutherans — there is no “canon law” on the question. Maybe now, though, I’ll have to break down and finally get a copy of LSB.

  8. I have always made the sign of the cross from forehead to breast, then from left shoulder to right shoulder and returning to the center. I was once told that this was the thing that distinguished Lutherans from Roman Catholics, although I learned to make the sign of the cross from my formerly Roman Catholic mother. I don’t make the cross the way I do to be Lutheran or noon-catholic, I just make it the way I am accustomed to make it.

    And during worship, if the pastor makes the sign of the cross, it seems appropriate for the laity to do so also. But there is no law. Do it when it seems right. It is done to focus the heart and mind on the source of our salvation and blessings, Christ and the cross.

  9. Has no one seen the movie “Austin Powers”?! Best line ever on remembering which direction to go when making the sign of the cross (though a little coarse). :-)

  10. @Pastor McCall #10
    Best line ever on remembering which direction to go when making the sign of the cross…

    I was taught that right/left or left/right didn’t matter; some do it exactly as their pastor does and others, having learned facing him, do a mirror image of his action. Neither was it a cause for great concern how you placed your fingers. It’s not about you.

    Ministers’ mileage may vary. [Especially if they think “coarse” is clever] ;(

  11. I always thought that it was head, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, then chest again.

  12. Tim S. :
    I use right to left because I’m not Roman Catholic.

    If that is your premise, wouldn’t you then be making yourself Eastern Orthodox by doing something the same way the Eastern Orthodox do it?

  13. Pastor Ernie Lassman says it doesn’t matter which direction you go. However, Eastern Orthodox traditionally have gone right to left.

  14. @Jais H. Tinglund #12

    Luther, so often invoked, was not on the WWW, giving unfavorable impressions to the public.
    [Then, as now, they could invent enough without help.]

    I missed the movie so I don’t know if the buffs go East or West. ;)

  15. Jais Tinglund :

    Tim S. :I use right to left because I’m not Roman Catholic.

    If that is your premise, wouldn’t you then be making yourself Eastern Orthodox by doing something the same way the Eastern Orthodox do it?

    Nope.

  16. Tim S. :

    Jais Tinglund :

    Tim S. :I use right to left because I’m not Roman Catholic.

    If that is your premise, wouldn’t you then be making yourself Eastern Orthodox by doing something the same way the Eastern Orthodox do it?

    Nope.

    Interesting. How not?

  17. I use left to right based on my previous Pastors suggestion; from heaven to earth to the heart.

  18. …or as one of our vicars taught the kids:  It can also be a silent confession of the creed.

    Head – Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven
    Chest – Incarnate
    Right shoulder – Crucified
    Left shoulder – Lives in my heart

  19. Well, this is certainly the most trivial of the differences between Western and Eastern Christianity, but personally, if I go w/ the Western church on the big ticket items (vicarious atonement, Theosis etc.) it seems consistent to cross myself left to right. I’d rather be inadvertently thought Roman Catholic, than Eastern Orthodox.
    Lenten Blessings+,
    -Matt Mills

  20. @Matthew Mills #26
    Trivial, indeed.

    Somehow it would seem to me that how a Lutheran makes the sign of the cross would have very little to do with making a choice between on the one hand justification by gradual transformation and on the other justification by works – about as little as making the sign of the cross to begin with has to do with embracing any other nonsense taught in the Eastern churches, but not by the Roman Catholic Church, or vice versa, or any of the nonsense the East and Rome have in common.

    To me, the very idea that because something is done this way in one heretical church body, one has to do that something the way it is done in another heretical church body – well, it just seems a little silly to begin with.

    After all, if you are going to make the sign of the cross, you are going to have to do it one way or the other. You cannot not – well, you could, of course, but that would the choice of not making the sign of the cross at all.

    Of course one could alternate, perhaps, because one is neither Eastern Orthodox, nor Roman Catholic.

    But then, of course, somebody might argue that by doing so one would be both. I am not really sure how that would work.

    Overall, things would be rather complicated, were there any merit to the premise that one can only make the sign of the cross the way Roman Catholics do it if one is Roman Catholic.

    I feel pretty fortunate, though, to be fairly convinced that there is not much merit to that premise. For that means that one can do whatever one prefers without ascribing any significance to either. And it means that I do not have to care.

    I am much more comfortable with that. It makes me feel less silly.

    I am aware of the irony that I have cared enough to post all this.
    And I would not object if anybody would characterise these musing as somewhat silly. I am having a little down time, and find myself unable to wrap my head around something worthwhile.

  21. jb :
    I am a bit amazed that so elementary a subject would have elicited so many comments.

    Some topics will do that, I guess, inconsequential in themselves as they are, because they are usually not conversed about (conversation might be limited to the judgemental comments and snide remarks of the unenlightened uninterested in enlightenment – which can hardly be referred to as conversation), and when these topics are finally brought up in a positive perspective it is like water falling on dry land: it gives as sense of relief, and sudden realisation that one has thoughts one would like to express on this topic, now that the occasion is finally there.

  22. In our congregation parishioners signing themselves with the cross is not practiced. Probably too much conservative German heritage involved. Our pastor does it at points during the liturgy and then signs the congregation during the benediction. Certainly, I would find no harm in anyone choosing to do so during the liturgy as well. I do wonder that if suddenly my doing so might cause some to sin against the Eighth Commandment (there’s that conservative German thinking again!) unless such demonstrations were discussed and encouraged by the voters assembly and noted in the bulletin (that seems awfully legalistic, doesn’t it?).

    Recently, at the funeral for a long time friend I noticed one woman curtsied in the aisle before entering the pew. I have no idea of her religious affiliation or even who she was, but it caught my eye only because doing so is not a common practice in our congregation. I prefer to err on the side of attributing such actions to personal respect for our Savior on the part of those who do them than to fall into the trap of breaking the Eighth Commandment.

  23. @Nate Bargmann #30
    Hi Nate,
    Your comments are insightful to me because in my congregation, making the sign of the cross is not regularly practiced by a majority of members. I have found that the more catechesis a congregation is given, especially in Luther’s Small Catechism, one will notice things like making the sign of the cross, etc. I’m old enough to remember that when one entered and sat down in the pew on Sunday morning, you bowed your head and said a silent prayer. That little action of Lutheran piety is practically nonexistent today. Everyone is more intent on greeting one another and making sure we Lutherans are ‘friendly’. However, I wouldn’t worry about breaking the Eighth Commandment so much, especially concerning outward expressions of Lutheran piety.

    I think what the woman did at the funeral is to genuflect, not curtsy. She probably comes from the Roman Catholic tradition where the practice is to bow towards the altar before entering the pew.

    In Christ,
    Diane

  24. @Diane #31
    The woman can have come from many different backgrounds, denominational, ethnic, and/or cultural. There really is a plethora of liturgical traditions out there.

    More importantly, (and, for the record, this I am not directing at you) it seems to me that there is something wrong with people keeping a watchful eye on and making judgements about how other people conduct themselves in their worship (provided, of course, that they are not being provocatively demonstrative about it so as to disturb even those who are indeed minding their own worship business) – or putting it to a vote or writing in the bulletin which (discrete) liturgical practices they are allowed to observe for themselves during their (personal and private) participation in worship.

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