The Sign of the Cross

Question: Why do we make the sign of the cross?

Christ the King Cathedral, Reykjavik, Iceland

The sign of the cross serves as something of a liturgical barometer. Want to know where a parish falls on the scale between “low” and “high” liturgy? Look for how many people make the sign of the cross and how often. On the one side, there are congregations that shy away from the sign of the cross for fear that it’s “too Catholic.” On the other side, there are parishes in which people seem to cross themselves at every turn.

In either case, though, one has to wonder: do the people actually know what it means? If Baptists understood the full implication of the sign of the cross, would they adopt the practice? Have liturgical Christians let the sign of the cross become a mere reflex?

What is this weird hand gesture? How old is this tradition? And what does it all mean?

Short Answer: Tracing the sign of the cross is an ancient physical reminder of our connection to Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Holy Trinity, and God’s blessing.

Long Answer: As with most liturgical actions, the sign of the cross has ancient roots and multiple layers of meaning.

It’s hard to say exactly when a physical act first began. We don’t have film reels of Christian worship from the 150s, and so we don’t know exactly what motions people made. Even in early written reports, there is still a lot of guess work and interpretation. What we do know is that by roughly the year 200, it was common practice for Christians to trace the sign of the cross in some way.

When we talk about “the sign of the cross,” we are talking about a few different things. The earliest and most basic form is a minor gesture: tracing the shape of the cross on the forehead with the thumb. (This practice still survives in certain parts of the liturgy, and we’ll briefly examine them as they come up.)

Writing around the year 200, the Christian theologian Tertullian remarked:

In all our travels and movement, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.

He even joked that Christians risked “wearing out” their foreheads from signing themselves so frequently.

Within a century, the sign had expanded to something resembling its present form: placing the right hand at the brow, moving then to the torso, and then from the left to the right shoulder.

This practice has endured since then. By the time Luther wrote his Small Catechism some 1,100 years later, he encouraged Christians to begin and end the day by making “the sign of the Holy Cross” and saying the following prayer: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.”

How this ancient and universal custom came to be cast aside even by some Lutherans despite Luther’s use of it is anyone’s guess. At present, there is a wide variety in how, when, and if the sign of the cross is utilized across the Church.

So the sign of the cross is old. But what does it mean?


The Cross, Death, and Resurrection
To begin with, the cross is not an obvious sign of glory. In fact, in the ancient context of occupied Judea, it was foolish and a scandal. When we consider symbols of power, we think of large buildings, decorated thrones, and golden crowns. In ancient Rome, laurel wreaths and the fasces were signs of glory, honor, and authority. To a Roman audience, the cross was an instrument of torture used to brutally punish rebel fighters rather than a symbol of power and majesty. It was such a violent method of death that Roman citizens could not be crucified; it was simply too violent to inflict on a citizen. By way of analogy, consider how odd it would be to trace the sign of a hangman’s noose as a sign of respect.

For the Jewish community of the first century, the cross was an even bigger issue. Not only was the cross used to publicly murder Jewish rebels, but according to the Torah, death by hanging on a tree was considered a curse.

Neither Jews nor Gentiles were eager to claim the cross as a sign of glory, laud, and honor.

Nevertheless, it is on the Holy Cross of Jesus that we see God’s glory: the Incarnation coming to its logical conclusion — death — but setting up the triumph of the Resurrection. On the cross, the Incarnate Son of God experiences the fullness of human suffering that, through his death, we might know the fullness of everlasting life in Christ.

It is this cruciform link between death and everlasting life that makes the sign of the cross so important to Christianity. This is also why many will cross themselves when reciting the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds at mentions of the Resurrection of the Body.

Christ Chapel, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

The Baptismal Connection
The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is closely linked to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and so too is the sign of the cross. At Baptism, the Lutheran liturgy calls for the pastor to trace the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, usually with oil, and with the accompanying words that that all the baptized have been “marked with the cross of Christ forever.” (This is done following the ancient practice of tracing the cross with the thumb on the forehead). Here, we see the clearest connection between death and life, the Holy Cross and our Resurrection.

And when we anoint the sick with oil (again, by tracing the sign of the cross with the thumb on the forehead) during prayers for healing and during the Commendation of the Dying, that same baptismal connection persists: we, who were anointed and marked with the cross at Baptism are upheld in that same identity during times of illness. Even at the hour of our death, we are joined with Christ in his death, and therefore we can place our hope in new life through his Resurrection. In this way, the sign of the cross is a repeated connection to our identity as a people baptized into the Body of Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, the pastor and assisting ministers make a similar action, again using the thumb but this time with ash instead of oil, and accompanied by these words: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The so-called “imposition” of ash takes on a sort of macabre echo of the anointing at Baptism as both a reminder of our mortality and an imperative to turn to life in Christ.

And many Catholics (along with other Christians), upon entering a church, will dip their fingers in water and make the sign of the cross. At LTSS, the Font is placed at the entrance to Christ Chapel (pictured above) for this very reason: that those gathering for worship may remember their Baptism by making the sign of the cross. Here is the full connection to the remembrance of Baptism: the tangible reminder in the holy water and the sign of the cross. Upon entering the church building, this action reminds us of how we enter the Church.

The Trinitarian Emphasis
As the sign of the cross moved from a small gesture made with the thumb to the larger practice covering most of the torso, an additional layer came in: a connection to the Trinity. Some even speculate that the larger shape of the cross is linked to early theological arguments about the nature of the Trinity.

With the new, larger sign came a specific phrase invoking the Triune God. The three persons of the Trinity are named during specific motions: the Father as the right hand touches the brow, the Son as the hand moves to the torso, and the Holy Spirit as the hand moves from left shoulder to right shoulder. Thus, the sign of the cross roots us not only in the death and Resurrection of Christ but also in the communal nature of the Eternal Three-in-One.

Moreover, people even came to associate Trinitarian meaning even with how the hand was held: three fingers (thumb, index, and middle) converging into a single point as a sign pointing towards God’s Triune nature.

For this reason, then, you will find that people cross themselves when invoking the name of Trinity — as during the first words of the Divine Service on Sundays and throughout the entire liturgy.

Blessings and Prayers
There is one final layer of meaning: benediction. Generally speaking, the sign of the cross is connected to asking for God’s blessing or when blessing God. For example, even when the Benediction ends “and grant us peace,” many will cross themselves at the final words. Likewise, when praying the great Lukan canticles, the Benedictus and Magnificat, many people will begin by crossing themselves during the opening words; when we sing Mary’s hymn of praise during a service of evening prayer, it is tradition to make the sign of the cross at the words “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Likewise, at the reading of the Gospel on Sundays, many will trace the cross with their right thumb (again, following the more ancient practice) on their foreheads, lips, and heart, accompanied by the prayer, “May the words of Christ be ever on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart,” asking that we might be blessed by the Gospel.

Even outside of an organized service, many will cross themselves after praying over a meal or speaking of the faithful departed as a way of physically expressing their desire for God’s blessing on the food or the deceased.

The Sign of the Cross as an Identity Marker
Returning to our example in the introduction, the sign of the cross is sometimes viewed as an identifier. While the sign of the cross is an action meant to convey faith in Christ, it has also been used as a way to sort people between different camps, as if to say, “This person is a Catholic,” or “This person is ‘high church.'”

In some cases, this marker is met with suspicion. While the sign of the cross is common place in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and many Lutheran congregations, it is less prevalent in so-called “low church” congregations. During my time serving parishes in Minnesota, I got more than a few weird looks for making the sign of the cross; in some cases, well-meaning parishioners warned me that I was acting “too Catholic” and that this ancient practice commended to us by Luther himself might offend Lutherans. And this is to say nothing of the looks that many Baptists shoot my way when I cross myself at meals.

But of course the opposite is also true: for some, seeing another person make the sign of the cross is a welcome sign. For example, I was attending a party with a large number of Baptists, and I crossed myself after the meal was blessed. Immediately after, a Catholic came up to me and wanted to know where I attended church and if I was Catholic; my action was, unbeknownst to me, a sign to this man that he wasn’t alone in the sea of Baptists. (This same man was sorely disappointed when he learned that I was a Lutheran pastor. He walked away quickly, which is a pity; I was looking forward to a conversation on the overlap between Catholic and Lutheran liturgical practice.)

The sign of the cross is an identity marker, but it should not be a way to sort us into different camps and denominations. Rather, it should root us firmly in our common faith and our identity as Christians baptized into the death and Resurrection of our Lord. The sign of the cross should unite us, not divide us.

When Do I Make the Sign?
These four layers of meaning — the Passion and Resurrection, Baptism, the Holy Trinity, and blessing — form a basis for the action, but they also add some confusion. This confusion is made worse by the decades of divisive denominational baggage attached to the sign.

Just as it is difficult to say how old the practice is and what it means, it’s difficult to say when to make the sign of the cross. Some prayer books and hymnals will include a small + to indicate that the sign should be made, but those marks are rarely all-inclusive. In Lutheran hymnals, the rubrics (the red texts that expand on the liturgy) will often say something along the lines of “All may make the sign of the cross….” A lot is bound up in that word “may,” and there is a wide variety in how this is practiced.

There’s a lot of variation in practice even among ELCA pastors. Some make the sign of the cross frequently, others only at the Invocation, the Absolution, and Benediction, and others omit the act altogether. To some extent, this variety could be expected in a denomination like the ELCA; we are, after all, a liturgically diverse group. But there’s variety in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches, too. In seminary, as I explored different liturgical traditions and worshiped frequently with Episcopalians, I was frustrated that there was not clear instruction on when to make the sign of the cross. I tried to look around and mimic other students, but I quickly learned that while there was some commonality, there was a lot of diversity as well.

It’s difficult if not impossible to come up with an exhaustive and authoritative list of when the sign of the cross is made. That being said, the ELCA’s worship staff has put together a helpful guide explaining the most common places that Christians cross themselves and provided a brief explanation of the reasoning behind each action. It’s well worth the read.

To Wrap Up
The sign of the cross, much like the Holy Cross itself, is laden with a surplus of meaning. Even the four inter-connected themes listed above are not enough to cover all that the sign of the cross means. How could they? The Cross of Jesus is God’s glory and our salvation.

And perhaps this is exactly the point. The Church has handed down a treasury of thinking about the Holy Cross and also about Passion and Resurrection, the Trinity, Holy Baptism, and God’s blessing. The liturgy touches on these themes over and over again, and these themes follow us out of the church building into the rest of the world. The sign of the cross points to all of these connections and more, pulling them forward and calling them to mind.

These simple physical gestures express so much of our faith and hope. There are times when one meaning seems to stand out above the rest. And that’s exactly why the sign of the cross is so important: one small physical act expresses the Christian faith.

Don’t get hung up on when to make the sign of the cross or worry that you might accidentally omit it one day. Rather, let the Holy Spirit move through this action and highlight the mysteries of God’s grace.

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