Why Christians Make the Sign of the Holy Cross (and a word on genuflection)

In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther encouraged Christians to retain the practice of making the sign of the cross. The Missouri Synod, following Luther’s advice, has encouraged Christians to continue making the sign 0310151243of the cross, notably at a number of places during the Divine Service. Several of these are indicated in Lutheran Service Book by the LSB cross symbolsymbol, though there are a number of places in the liturgy where Christians have crossed themselves that are not indicated in LSB (see #3, 5, 6, and 7, below). Before we look at why the cross may be made at these places, first a word on how to make the sign of the cross.

ChristusThe practice of crossing one’s self is an ancient practice and is derived from such passages as Deuteronomy 6:8, Ezekiel 9:4, Revelation 7:3, 9:4, and 14:1. The practice of tracing the cross on objects and one’s body is discussed by such church fathers as Tertullian (v. 6), Jerome (“Epitaph Paulae”), and Cyril (par. 36). There are differences in tradition on how to make the gesture, both with respect to the shape of the hand and also what direction to trace the cross from shoulder to shoulder.

The three main variations of finger position are 1) to use two fingers (either index & middle or thumb and index) to indicate the two natures of Christ; 2) to bring the tip of the thumb, index, and middle finger together to signify the three persons of the Trinity; or 3) to extend the thumb, index, and middle finger while folding the ring and little finger back against the palm, thus indicating both the Holy Trinity and two natures of Christ (as seen in the mosaic to the right).

The other consideration when making the sign of the cross is the question of which direction to make the motion. There is (almost) agreement regarding the first two steps, beginning at the forehead and then going down to the sternum (or navel, in the East). Then the question is whether to go from right to left, or from left to right. The right to left pattern appears to be the more ancient practice and is the method most commonly found in the Lutheran rubrics (it is also used by the Orthodox). Theologically, this follows from the biblical preference of right over left (sheep on the right, goats on the left [Matthew 25:33] and Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father [Acts 5:31]). The left to right pattern is the dominant method in the Roman church and is a reminder that Jesus first descended into hell (as indicated by beginning with the left) before ascending to sit at the right hand of the Father.

Enough about procedure. There are various points in the liturgy where the sign of the cross may be made. The placement of the cross at these locations is not haphazard, but rather has theological significance. Much more could be said about this than what follows, but here are some thoughts to get you going.

  1. The sign of the cross may be made at the Invocation (“In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit). That, of course, is the Name into which Christians are baptized, and St. Paul teaches that it is into the death (cross) of Christ that we are baptized (Romans 6:3-5). To be “baptized into Jesus’ death” means all the benefits of the cross (forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation) are applied to you personally in Holy Baptism. The first time the sign of the cross is placed on Christians is in Holy Baptism (“receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your + forehead and upon your + heart to make you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified”). Thus, it is especially appropriate to make the sign of the cross over yourself when the pastor speaks the baptismal Invocation, since to trace the cross on your body is to confess that the cross and all of its benefits are yours by virtue of Holy Baptism.
  2. Christians may also cross themselves during the Absolution when the pastor says, “I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Note again the use of the baptismal formula, so everything that was said above about the Invocation also applies to making the sign of the cross during the Absolution. Jesus has not commanded us to re-baptize the repentant Christian after they sin. He has, however, given His Church the ability to forgive sins on earth (Matthew 16:19), which is the means by which we continually experience the cleansing benefits of Holy Baptism (see “fourthly” in Luther’s Small Catechism).
  3. The celebrant may also make the sign of the cross (with his right thumb) on his forehead, lips, and heart just prior to the reading of the Holy Gospel as a sort of prayer that he would know, say, and believe nothing except Christ crucified. This is reflected in the traditional prayer that is said by the celebrant just prior to the reading: “May the Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that I may worthily and rightly proclaim His Gospel, in the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
  4. It is also appropriate to make the sign of the cross at the words “and the life + of the world to come” in the creed, for it is the cross which gives us the hope of everlasting life in the restored creation.
  5. Sometimes pastors will cross themselves as they begin their sermons while speaking the Invocation, since the Christian sermon is a proclamation of God’s saving Name (congregations may follow suit by crossing themselves and responding by saying, “Amen”). The comments in #1 and #2 above also apply here, since the sermon is, in many ways, an extended Absolution.
  6. Christians have also made the sign of the cross at the words “Blessed is He” during the Sanctus. Those words were spoken by the crowds on Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on His way to the cross, thus the practice of crossing yourself at this time (Matthew 21:9). In addition to crossing themselves, Christians have also bowed during the Sanctus (more on that shortly).
  7. The sign of the cross may also be made at the words “deliver us from evil” (or: “from the evil one)” in the Lord’s Prayer (see the seventh petition). The rationale here is similar as it was for the Creed (see #4, above). The cross is that which fulfills this petition, delivering us from evil and giving us the hope of a blessed end.

    The Mond Crucifixion (Raphael) Notes especially the two angels catching the blood of our Lord in chalices, highlighting the connection between the cross and the Sacrament of the Altar
    The Mond Crucifixion (Raphael)
    Note especially the two angels catching the blood of our Lord in chalices, highlighting the connection between the cross and the Sacrament of the Altar
  8. Christians may also cross themselves during the Verba (“this is My + body,”; “this cup is the new testament in My + blood”) and the dismissal (“Depart + in peace”). At the altar, you receive the body and blood which Jesus gave and shed for you on the cross (see the Raphael painting at the left).
  9. Finally, the cross may be made during the Benediction (“and + give you peace”), for the peace and communion we have with God is possible only through the cross. Recall the song of the angels at the birth of Jesus (which we sing in the Gloria in Excelsis): “Glory be to God on high, on earth, peace,” (Luke 2:14).

Making the sign of the cross, while certainly not required, can be a very helpful practice and carries with it a great deal of theological significance. It is a reminder that in all things, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) and that the Christian life is one of bearing the cross (Matthew 16:24).

A Word on Bowing/Genuflecting:

In Ceremony and Celebration, Paul H.D. Lang offers the following comments on bowing and genuflecting:

Bowing and genuflecting are very closely related. A genuflection is merely a more profound bow. When genuflecting, one touches the ground with the right knee at the place where the foot was and then stands upright again at once in a continuous action. Bowing and genuflecting are reverences or, when directed to people, signs of respect. Giving form and expression to inner devotions, reverences help to make our worship meaningful and impressive. Books on ceremonies distinguish between head bows and body bows. In head bows, only the head is inclined. An example of this kind of bow is the one an officiant makes to the people at the response, “And with thy spirit.” In the body bow, the head and shoulders are bent forward. It is always made in expressing reverence to God, (61).

Christians have also sometimes bowed their heads whenever the name of Jesus is spoken and also when we speak of worship during the liturgy (“we worship Thee” in the Gloria in Excelsis and “is worshiped and glorified” in the Nicene Creed).

Christians may also genuflect during the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, which appears both at the end of the Introit and Nunc Dimittis), and also while singing the words of the seraphim from Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple in the Sanctus (Isaiah 6:1-3). As an expression of reverence, it is appropriate to bow when the Divine Name is spoken (which reminds us of the importance of keeping God’s Name holy and using it rightly; cf. the 1st Petition & 2nd Commandment). The Sanctus (see also #6, above), with its related ceremonies of genuflecting and crossing, is particularly appropriate at this point in the Service of the Sacrament, for like the seraphim and the crowds on Palm Sunday, we are also in the presence of God (cf. Isaiah 6 & Matthew 21).

Christians have also bowed at the words “and became man” during the Nicene Creed. It is appropriate for us to bow as we confess the Incarnation, even as the magi fell down and worshiped the Incarnate Lord (Matthew 3:11).

Luther, in his typically colorful fashion, relates the following story about genuflecting during the Creed:

Colbert genuflectingThe following tale is told about a coarse and brutal lout. While the words “And was made man” were being sung in church, he remained standing, neither genuflecting nor removing his hat. He showed no reverence, but just stood there like a clod. All the others dropped to their knees when the Nicene Creed was prayed and chanted devoutly. Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He cursed him gruesomely and said: “May hell consume you! If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang: ‘God was made an angel,’ I would bend not only to my knees but my whole body to the ground! And you vile human creature, you stand there like a stick or a stone. You hear that God did not become an angel but a man like you, and you just stand there like a stick of wood!

Whether this story is true or not, it is nevertheless in accordance with the faith. With this instructive story the holy fathers wished to admonish the youth the revere the indescribably great miracle of the incarnation; they wanted us to open our eyes wide and ponder these words well,” (AE 22:105-106).

The most profound genuflection occurs during consecration and distribution as an act of worship to the bodily presence of Christ with us in, with, and under the bread and the wine. Communicants typically bend both knees (double genuflect) when receiving the Sacrament. A helpful discussion of the relationship between genuflecting and theology of the Sacrament can be found over at Gottesdienst.

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