On the Sign of the Cross

Q. What has two fingers and a thumb and makes the sign of the cross?
A. The right hand of this United Methodist elder.

And I do it Latin style. Forehead to breast, left shoulder to right shoulder, thumb and first two fingers joined. Especially at the invocation of the holy trinity.

On an individual level, making the sign of the cross is a physical prayer and a sign of the identity I received in baptism. When I use it as a worship leader, it is a way of blessing the congregation.

The physicality of the act is central. Couldn’t I just think to myself, “I belong to Christ, who died on the cross for me and who rose from the dead. I have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith describes the significance of our existence as bodily creatures. We are not primarily reasoning machines who happen to have bodies. So much of our lives take place at the preconscious or unconscious levels, in what he calls the “gut” or the “heart.”

The way to our hearts is through our bodies. (p. 57)

It is the bodily practices (drills) that train the body (including the brain) to develop habits or dispositions to respond automatically in certain situations and environments. Our desire is trained in the same way. (pp. 59-60).

The intimate link between bodily practices and our adaptive unconscious is a testament to the holistic character of human persons. We are not conscious minds or souls “housed” in meaty containers; we are selves who are our bodies; thus the training of desire requires bodily practices in which a particular telos is embedded. (p. 62).

Making the sign of the cross has become almost a reflex for me. As the worship service begins, I can feel my body anticipating the worship leader invoking the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The muscles in my arm lean toward their objective, like a runner on first base waiting for the moment to sprint toward second.

I learned to make the sign of the cross by worshiping with Lutherans and Anglicans. At first, it felt awkward and I raced through motions, feeling clumsy and self-conscious. Now I take my time, feeling each movement of my hand. Forehead. Chest. Left shoulder. Right shoulder.

Making the sign is an ancient practice, but the oldest form involved making the sign only on the forehead with one finger or the thumb.

In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross. (Tertullian, De Corona, ca. AD 250).

Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor’s sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor.”  (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis, AD 386)

If you are tempted, hasten to sign yourself on the forehead against the devil, provided you make it with faith, not for men to see but knowing how to use it like a breastplate. Then the adversary, seeing the power that comes from the heart, will flee. This is what Moses imaged forth through the Passover lamb that was sacrificed, when he sprinkled the thresholds and smeared the doorposts with its blood. He was pointing to the faith that we now have in the perfect Lamb. By signing our forehead and eyes with our hand, we repulse him who seeks to destroy us. (the so-called Apostolic Tradition [previously attributed to Hippolytus] or Egyptian Church Order , 3d or 4th century AD )

Far from seeing it as an empty or superstitious practice, Martin Luther preserved the sign of the cross for use by Christians.

In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say: In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. (Martin Luther, Small Catechism)

Sometime after the 4th century, Christians began to use the larger version and two or three fingers. Originally, the traverse motion went from the right shoulder to the left, and this is still the way it is done in Orthodox churches. All sorts of “meanings” became associated with the motions and the way one holds one’s fingers. None of this matters to me.

For me, the practice is rooted in the words of the Bible and the catholicity of the church.

The author of Revelation speaks about a seal (7:3) that God places on the foreheads of his people to preserve them during the struggle and martyrdom. Revelation 14:1 describes this same group as having the name of the lamb and of his father written on their foreheads. Revelation 22:4 portrays the residents of the New Jerusalem in the same way. They have the name of God written on their foreheads.

The apostle Paul also speaks of those who have been sealed in Christ.

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, (Ephesians 1:13)

Paul’s language certainly looks baptismal, with its references to anointing, sealing and the Holy Spirit.

Whether Paul had baptism in mind or not, the early catholic tradition certainly came to see it that way. Making the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is emblematic of God’s seal. By Water and the Spirit, the United Methodist Church’s official statement on Baptism, makes this same point:

God bestows upon baptized persons the  presence of the Holy Spirit, marks them with an identifying seal as God’s own, and implants in their hearts the first installment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

Catholic author Stephen Beale sums it up nicely for me.

Such baptismal language strengthens the connection with the Sign of the Cross, which is accompanied by the words, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”—the same words with which we are baptized. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once described it, the Sign of the Cross as the “summing up and re-acceptance of our baptism.”