The Sign of the Holy Cross

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 Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day about the practice of “crossing yourself.”  This is the practice of using your right hand to “draw” a cross on your chest, usually the vertical line followed by the horizontal. The person I was talking to replied in what I think is the most common way for Lutherans to talk about this issue: “I always thought that was a Catholic thing.”

I used to have the same thought, too. It certainly seemed like a Roman Catholic thing; that seemed to be the group of people who did it. Actually, most of my memories as a child of someone crossing himself was Minnesota Twins baseball great Kirby Puckett, who used to cross himself before every at-bat. Other than that, it’s not a practice to which I gave much thought.

That’s why it was neat for me to read the words that I quoted at the top of this post. Those words are not found in some Roman Catholic prayerbook, but in Luther’s Small Catechism. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, did not discourage the use of crossing oneself, he encouraged it enough to put it right in his Catechism.

And the more I think about it, the more I see how neat this little practice is. The idea of putting Jesus’ cross on your heart as you are praying…what a way of focusing our thoughts on him who died for us! What a way of reminding myself that because of Christ’s cross and his sacrifice on it, I am a holy child of God. How neat that this practice hearkens back to the sign of the cross made in the Rite of Baptism, to “mark you as a redeemed child of Christ.” It’s a beautiful symbol, and one we shouldn’t be afraid of.

Do I think that those who practice this are somehow better Christians? Of course not. Does not making this sign or forgetting to do so mean you have just sinned? Not in the least. Nor do I think that this practice should be seen as some sort of magical incantation that makes your prayers extra powerful. No, it is just a beautiful way of reminding yourself of Christ’s cross and putting yourself in the mindset of focusing on his cross in your prayers.

Martin Luther didn’t throw out the baby of tradition with the bathwater of false teaching with regard to this practice. Maybe it’s worth rethinking our stance on it, too.

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6 thoughts on “The Sign of the Holy Cross

  1. I’m right there with you about remembering Kirby Puckett crossing himself before reaching his bat to the plate. That was pretty much the only place I ever saw it growing up. Unfortunately, the edition of the Catechism we were learning from removed the passage you cited above. And no one explained to us why Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers began “In the name of the Father…” I always thought that was strange until I found out what Luther actually wrote.

    Another way that I have talked about making the sign of the cross is that it is an expression of faith that confesses that what Jesus did on the cross, he did for me. As though I take Jesus’ cross and put it on me. That’s what the Sacraments do, isn’t it? They take what God has done for the whole world and make it mine—in water, bread and wine, and words of absolution. They are individual things: “I baptize you…” “Given for you…” “I forgive you..” No wonder these are also typical times for people to mark themselves with the sign of the cross.

    • I’m not near my old Catechisms right now, but I wonder how many of the old printings of the small catechism among the different publishing houses have left that phrase out. I would guess it goes back a ways, but I’m not sure.

      I like what you say about the cross being “an expression of faith that confesses that what Jesus did on the cross, he did for me.” Love it.

  2. A lengthy quote from Luther’s exposition of the 2nd Commandment in the Large Catechism. Be patient and you’ll find a brief reference to making the sign of the cross as part of our daily life:

    70 On the other hand, children should be constantly urged and moved to honor God’s name and to have it always upon their lips for everything that may happen to them or come to their notice [Psalm 8:2; 34:1; Matthew 21:16; Hebrews 13:15]. For that is the true honor of His name, to look to it and call upon it for all consolation [Psalm 66:2; 105:1]. Then—as we have heard in the First Commandment—the heart by faith gives God the honor due Him first. Afterward, the lips give Him honor by confession.
    71 This is also a blessed and useful habit and very effective against the devil. He is ever around us and lies in wait to bring us into sin and shame, disaster and trouble [2 Timothy 2:26]. But he hates to hear God’s name and cannot remain long where it is spoken and called upon from the heart. 72 Indeed, many terrible and shocking disasters would fall upon us if God did not preserve us by our calling upon His name. I have tried it myself. I learned by experience that often sudden great suffering was immediately averted and removed by calling on God. To confuse the devil, I say, we should always have this holy name in our mouth, so that the devil may not be able to injure us as he wishes.

    73 It is also useful that we form the habit of daily commending ourselves to God [Psalm 31:5], with soul and body, wife, children, servants, and all that we have, against every need that may arise. So also the blessing and thanksgiving at meals [Mark 8:6] and other prayers, morning and evening, have begun and remained in use [Exodus 29:38–43]. 74 Likewise, children should continue to cross themselves when anything monstrous or terrible is seen or heard. They can shout, “Lord God, protect us!” “Help, dear Lord Jesus!” and such. Also, if anyone meets with unexpected good fortune, however trivial, he says, “God be praised and thanked!” or “God has bestowed this on me!” and so on, just as the children used to learn to fast and pray to St. Nicholas and other saints before. This would be more pleasing and acceptable to God than all monasticism and Carthusian acts of holiness.

    75 Look, we could train our youth this way [Proverbs 22:6], in a childlike way and playfully in the fear and honor of God. Then the First and Second Commandments might be well kept and in constant practice. Then some good might take root, spring up, and bear fruit. People would grow up whom an entire land might relish and enjoy. 76 In addition, this would be the true way to bring up children well as long as they could be trained with kindness and delight. For children who must be forced with rods and blows will not develop into a good generation. At best they will remain godly under such treatment only as long as the rod is upon their backs [Proverbs 10:13].

    77 But ‹teaching the commandments in a childlike and playful way› spreads its roots in the heart so that children fear God more than rods and clubs. This I say with such simplicity for the sake of the young, that it may penetrate their minds. For we are preaching to children, so we must also talk like them. In this way we would prevent the abuse of the divine name and teach the right use. This should happen not only in words, but also in practice and life. Then we may know God is well pleased with this and will as richly reward good use of His name as He will terribly punish the abuse.

    • Great quote. (Of course, you can’t go wrong with the Large Catechism.) I had been thinking of putting something into my post about how such a practice would be most easily taught to and understood by children. It could be a great expression of that child-like faith God gives to little ones.

  3. Pingback: The Sign of the Cross « A Shepherd's Story

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