Throughout the ages physical gestures have accompanied those who have offered prayers to God. Such physical gestures signify that the individual is speaking to one who is unseen. Whether one uses such physical gestures is largely determined by the individual and his or her faith attitude.
Martin Luther, a reformer of the church, encouraged Christians to make the sign of the cross as part of their devotional life. This is seen in his Morning and Evening Prayers where he writes:
In the morning when you get up (In the evening when you go to bed), 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.
He then suggests speaking the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and an additional prayer.
To make the sign of the cross one may follow this illustrated example with the following explanation: “Touch your head at the naming of the Father; then bring your hand to the middle of your chest (over your heart) at the naming of the Son. At the naming of the Holy Spirit, touch your right or left shoulder and then the opposite one before returning to the middle of your chest.”
Making the sign of the cross in no way makes one a superior Christian than those who for their own reasons chose not to. Such an action is to be entirely left up to Christian freedom with no coercion.
This “touching,” or “marking” the forehead is first seen in Scripture with the High Priest as he carried out his duties in the Tabernacle.
“You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead…” (Ex 28:36-38a).
In baptism we have become members of the priesthood of all believers where each believer has access to God through faith in Christ and then has the responsibility to serve the Lord Jesus in daily witness and service to one’s neighbors.
This theme of being marked upon our foreheads continues in Ezekiel.
“And the LORD said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it’” (Ez 9:4).
The righteous were spared from death and destruction (v. 5) when they received the “mark,” upon their foreheads. This “mark,” is a translation of the last letter of the ancient Hebrew alphabet called “tau.” In the ancient script it was made either in the form of a plus sign “+”, or, that of a multiplication sign, an “x”. In the mind of God Christ was slain on a cross before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:20; Rev 13:8) so it should not surprise us that this mark of the “tau” bears an uncanny resemblance to a cross!
This mark—this “tau”—which sets us apart from destruction and for eternal life with Christ is referenced in the Apocalypse. It is placed upon the foreheads of the baptized who are protected from the destruction and judgment that comes upon the ungodly while the victory song of the redeemed is sung. Our priestly status is seen in the subsequent verses:
- “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev 7:3).
- “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev 9:4).
- “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1).
- “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4).
This “mark” which sets us apart as being holy to the Lord is symbolically placed upon us in the rite of Holy Baptism. In my tradition, after a person has been baptized, the pastor, using oil, marks the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baptized and says:
Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked + with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.
There appear to be seven physical actions or movements embraced by people the world over to accompany prayer. They are:
- Up-stretched hands
- Bowing the head
- Closing one’s eyes
- Folding one’s hands
- Prostrating oneself on the ground
- Making the sign of the + cross
All seven forms of prayer have been employed at different times in the church’s history and in their proper context are quite acceptable. Today, six of these forms are employed by non-Christians. In today’s context the seventh form; “making the sign of the + cross” is unmistakably and uniquely Christian. This cannot be said of the other forms. Making the sign of the cross is so uniquely Christian it would never be used by a non-Christian. It is a “signifier” or identifier of being Christian. The use of such a signifier may in itself be a witness to the One under whose cross we stand and whose resurrected we live.
People in our nation are becoming more and more “spiritual” as Christianity continues to decline. Opportunities to witness abound. Perhaps there is more to Luther’s encouragement to make the sign of the + cross than what would initially seem to us—especially in light of the rich Biblical witness and the growing presence of Islam.
Again, to make the sign of the cross is a matter of Christian freedom. You may or may not feel comfortable doing it yourself, or you may not do it as often as your neighbor. That’s okay. But when the sign of the cross is made, whether by pastor or people, let this be the proclamation: Christ has died for your sins upon the cross; in Baptism he shares that cross with you; because you share in His cross, you are a child of God and are precious in His sight (Lutheranism 101 – St. Louis: Concordia, 2010, pp. 231-232).
- This article has been adapted from one originally published by Pastor Karl Weber at Steadfast Lutherans: On Making the Sign of the Cross.