Why Do Christians Make the Sign of the Cross?

In the section of Morning and Evening Prayer, in his Small Catechism of 1529, Martin Luther says: “In the morning, as soon as you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: ‘Under the care of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen’.” He then instructs the reader to say the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and to pray the morning prayer that he provides or another of the person’s own choosing. Luther also encourages: “After singing a hymn or whatever else may serve your devotion, you are to go to your work joyfully.” Likewise when instructing the faithful in offering evening devotions, Luther says: “In the evening, when you go to bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: ‘Under the care of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen’.” This is followed by instructions to say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, an evening prayer – such as the one Luther provides, and “. . . to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” The devotional practice of making the sign of the Holy Cross did not originate with Luther – but actually goes back to the early days of the Christian Church, at least as early as the 100’s A.D. Now of course, Luther did modify it (no surprises here). The traditional practice of the Western Church was to touch one’s forehead, then the heart, then the left shoulder, and then the right shoulder – using the fingers of the right hand. Luther modified this practice by encouraging Christians to return their fingers to their heart after touching the right shoulder, as a testimony to the heart being the place where faith resides. Thus to this day, many Lutherans end the sign of the cross at their heart, while Roman Catholic Christians end the sign of the cross at their right shoulder. Because Eastern Christians (Orthodox) reverse the order of which shoulder is to be touched first in making the sign of the cross – they end at the left shoulder. There have also been many traditions of how one’s fingers should be formed during this ritual movement. The two most common practices in our tradition are: (1). an open hand in which the four fingers and thumb represent the five wounds of Christ, and (2). Index, middle, and ring fingers pressed together symbolizing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In spite of all of the variations in practice, what is most important is that a cross is traced over the body of the person making it.

Christians make the sign of the Holy Cross in remembrance of their baptism in which they are declaring that “this body and life belong to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When persons are baptized, the pastor with the Holy Chrism (oil blessed specifically for use in baptisms) on his or her thumb makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person who has just been baptized and says, “[name], child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever” (Lutheran Book of Worship, page 124). This is the first time that the sign of the cross is made over the Christian, but in subsequent years as the new Christian learns to make this sign over their own self – they are learning to remember that God has claimed them as His own in Holy Baptism. Saint Paul writes in Romans, chapter 6, “3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” In Holy Baptism, we have been joined to Christ’s death – meaning that we have died, and the life we now live is joined to the risen Christ who lives without end. Through this Holy Sacrament, God not only washes away our original sin – but promises us eternal life with Him in His Kingdom. Jesus promises in John 11:25-26, “. . . I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Every time we make the sign of the cross over our bodies, we are declaring that as a baptized child of God – this body that has been crucified in being joined to Christ’s death and will be raised in a resurrection like Christ’s.

It is important for us to remember, however, that making the sign of the Holy Cross is not a mandatory obligation for the Christian. This practice is a matter of evangelical freedom – anything that is neither commanded nor prohibited by Holy Scripture is open for discussion and discretion within the Lutheran tradition. Persons who grew up during the days in which the Common Service Book (1917) and the Service Book and Hymnal (1958) were used in Lutheran worship were not always instructed in making the sign of the cross – it depended on the backgrounds of the pastor and congregation. This was also true for the Book of Worship (1899) of the General Synod, which was one of the first widely-used Lutheran service books written in English in America. Of course, there were earlier Lutheran service books written in English, produced by Lutheran church bodies such as the Pennsylvania Ministerium and the General Council, but there really were not any service books written in English that received widespread usage in America until after the adoption of the “Common Service,” following the Civil War. Prior to that time, the majority of Lutheran congregations in America used service books written in German, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, or Danish. In fact, St. John’s (and congregations like her) went straight from the German service books to the Common Service Book. Catechism students instructed during the time in which the German service books were used, were frequently taught to make the sign of the cross whenever the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost) were spoken – in keeping with traditional practices of worship and Luther’s instructions for private prayer in the Small Catechism. This has also been true for catechism students instructed since the introduction of the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) – which has restored many of the traditional practices of Lutheran worship that were not retained in the development of earlier “English” service books. Whether one makes the sign of the cross or does not make the sign of the cross is a matter of personal piety and devotion; and it should not to be forced upon those who are uncomfortable with the practice. The focus is always upon the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and what God has done for us and to us in our baptism. For those desiring to make the sign of the cross in worship – it is appropriate to trace the cross over ourselves whenever the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is spoken, whenever the symbol “+” appears in our liturgy booklet, and before and after receiving our Lord’s body and blood in Holy Communion. This is the reason that many of our members dip their fingers in the holy water and trace the cross over themselves whenever they pass by the baptismal font. May God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit bless you now and forever.

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