“Why make the sign of the cross, isn’t that Roman Catholic?” was a common expression I heard when I was in the parish. I responded first by mentioning that Luther’s Catechism teaches us to make the sign of the cross. “The catechism doesn’t teach that,” they say. I respond by “Lookup Luther’s morning and evening prayer and the meal prayer. What does it say?” Actually making the sign of the cross is one of the oldest traditions in Christianity and it spans across the world both in the Eastern and Western hemisphere. Why is this practice so important that among other practices, Luther would teach the young to make the sign of the cross and consider it fundamental because of its inclusion in his small and simple teaching of the catechism?
My Grandfather grew up in Altenburg (Perry County), Missouri and became a pastor. In his day, those who made the sign of the cross were considered as “Roman Catholic,” “liberal,” or people who flaunted their religion. There were also practices that differentiated Lutherans and Roman Catholics such as the crucifix compared to the empty cross and certain outward gestures. Today there is a movement back to the fundamentals such as Lutheran doctrine, liturgy, and practice. This is done in the face of an American culture where religion itself is becoming a melting pot of practice and belief. In our day those who make the sign of the cross may now be considered conservative or in other words, “confessional” in their beliefs.
What is making the sign of the cross all about? A huge paper could be written on this subject. Here are some considerations, however. The Scripture considers the cross as the center hinge of our faith in which our life revolves. It is precisely there that our salvation was won for us, not on Easter but on Good Friday. But yet many of our churches are half-empty on Good Friday but full-on Easter. Truly Easter is a joyful day but it cannot be seen outside of Good Friday and vice versa but in a strange way, many tend to avoid the crucifix or the “crucified Christ” as the center of our confession and therefore miss the Good Friday experience. St. Paul says that he preaches nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified which is accompanied with many other passages that convey this very important Gospel of the cross (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Christians made the sign of the cross for a number of reasons. One because it was the center of our confession and marking us as one redeemed by Christ thus pointing us back to our Baptism. It is at the cross where God revealed Himself to us through His Son so we make the sign of the cross while naming God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Secondly, we make the sign of the cross on our body. Christianity is a flesh and blood “religion”, not merely a spiritual one but a very physical one. The main job of the Holy Spirit is to bring Christ to us in His flesh and blood through His Word and Sacrament. The sign of the cross is made upon our body knowing and confessing that God has redeemed not only our soul but also our flesh, that is, our bodies as we confess, “I look for(ward) to the resurrection of the dead (body) and the life of the world to come.” Since our flesh and blood cannot enter into the kingdom of God, Christ gives His flesh and blood as a replacement.
Also, the suffering and death of Christ have become our own in Baptism. St. Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (ESV, Roman 6:3) and “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (ESV, II Corinthians 4:11-12) Again, what was once Christ’s now has become our own in Baptism. So we sign ourselves as one marked as redeemed in death but in death we see life. So in some of the old movies, you may see a Christian, in the face of demon possession or something terrible, make the sign of the cross, marking themselves with the mark of salvation in the face of evil. There are also other times in which Christians traditionally make the sign of the cross during the liturgy and daily devotions. Ask your pastor what the practice is at your church.
In conclusion, being a Christian does not mean that you have to make the sign of the cross, on the other hand, we should not treat such practices as if it was merely an old Roman Catholic tradition or something of no real importance. It is a very central confession and substance of our faith in the true God who has come to us through His Son for our life and salvation.
by The Rev. John M. Dreyer