Tuesday, September 28, 2010


“This sign [of the cross] was not only used in the churches in very ancient times: it is still an admirably simple reminder of the cross of Christ.” – Martin Bucer

I grant you that Bucer was referring to making the sign of the cross as part of the rite of Baptism. Nevertheless, it’s a noteworthy statement to come from a Protestant reformer in the 16th century. For Bucer, not absolutely everything Roman should be abandoned—there were some things to be retained in the new order. At least in the Sacrament of Baptism, the sign of the cross was found worthy.

Bucer’s sensible attitude has not prevailed in much of Protestantism, especially in the Presbyterian branch. For us, the rule is usually, “If it has so much as a whiff of Roman Catholic to it, it is strictly verboten.” So it goes with the Eucharist, for example. If they celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, then that’s the reason we don’t. God forbid we should become too “Catholic.” In similar fashion, we have mostly managed to steer clear of anything so Romanish as making the sign of the cross.

Except maybe Martin Bucer has prevailed after all. In the Book of Common Worship (1993) the sign of the cross is suggested and permitted in the services of Baptism, by the minister over the people. When the baptized person is anointed with oil, the sign of the cross may be used in its application. (This is true as well when anointing is done in the services of wholeness.) In the Vigil of the Resurrection after the Thanksgiving for Our Baptism, individuals may dip their hands in the water and sign themselves.

The connection of the sign of the cross with Baptism was made powerfully clear to me when the Daily Prayer Task Force, of which I was part, met for four or five days at St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana. Our purpose was to experience Daily Prayer with the fathers and brothers.

So we went to church twice a day. As we entered, we could not miss the receptacles with “holy water” inside each door. (The receptacle was the same size and same octagonal shape as the baptismal font in the church I served at the time.) In passing, each monk dipped a hand in the water and made the sign of the cross, head to breast, shoulder to shoulder. The same gesture was repeated as they left.

Being with the Romans, it seemed appropriate to do as the Romans did. As I entered, the water from the “baptismal font” and sign of the cross self-imposed was a reminder that it was by baptism that I came into the church. As I left, the same gesture was a reminder that I was to go out and live my baptism by taking up my cross and following the risen Lord. It didn’t take long for the impact of signing myself to hit me with a wallop. This is a powerful symbolic act, and, as Bucer put it, one that “was not only used in the churches in very ancient times, [but] is still an admirably simple reminder of the cross of Christ.”

I have also worshiped many times with the Monks of New Skete, a monastery-parish of the Orthodox Church of America nearby where I live. The sign of the cross is an integral part of their worship—both as made by the priest and by the people. Signing oneself is a physical way of identifying with what is being said: always when the Trinity is mentioned, often when one identifies with a particular prayer intention or petition, even when one simply affirms faith. In many ways, you sign yourself in Orthodox worship much as an enthusiastic Protestant might shout “Amen!” to a point well taken.

This experience with the folks at New Skete has also enriched my personal use of the sign of the cross. (I tend to cross myself in Orthodox style, ending right shoulder to left, so that my arm is across my chest—this, according to Orthodox interpretation, leaves the person in the posture of prayer.) When I worship there, I feel actively, physically involved in the liturgy.

My usual place of worship is a Lutheran church where a number of people in the congregation sign themselves in the course of the liturgy, and I have grown to feel comfortable in joining them in the custom.

Perhaps many Protestants resist signing themselves because they perceive it as a superstitious act—like the prize fighter making the sign to secure God’s power behind his punch, or the ball player at bat asking for God to help him hit a curve ball, or as a means of garnering less athletic blessings in everyday life. For some it is superstition, just as for some Protestants prayer verges on superstition, a means of getting what we want rather than opening ourselves to what God wants. We do not abandon prayer, however, simply because some treat it in superstitious fashion. Nor should we abandon signing ourselves with the cross of Christ.

Do you sign yourself with the cross? Where and how did you decide to do this? How has making the sign of the cross affected your worship?


  1. I always wondered why Catholics did this and we didn't. I can see how it would be meaningful, done thoughtfully. It's good that some Protestants are recognizing that.

  2. The connection between holy water font and baptismal font is something that is often missed. I once asked why, if we enter the church through baptism, we don't have the font near the front door so people would pass by it going in and out... then I was reminded of the Roman connection and that the members wouldn't go for it (I really was told something more insulting). Funny, though, that in our local RC church there is not only a holy water font, but also a baptismal font hidden from view in a side room--seemingly an afterthought.
    By the way, Don, I saw you use the sign of the cross in a service during the Benediction and it seemed to fit perfectly.

  3. Even though I was Presbyterian, I served Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic congregations for many years, thoroughly immersing myself in the liturgy and the music that accompanied it. I now find myself back in a Presbyterian choir that is seated in the front of the congregation, and rather have to restrain my hand at the words, "in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit" as my mind traces the sign of the cross instead of allowing my hand to follow its natural course. I echo Don's words about the "Amen" aspect of the signing of the cross,a physical confirmation of what we believe, an embodiment of the words we say and sing. Should Presbyterians adopt the signing of the cross? I vote "yes!"

  4. Here's a contrary perspective from a Presbyterian pastor who grew up Roman Catholic in a very conservative Archdiocese. Let me say, first of all, how much I appreciate the deep and far-reaching ecumenical commitment of the Albany diocese. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had grown up here. But I remember some vestiges of a punitive, exclusive outlook that I experienced in the church of my youth.
    My son now goes to Catholic school, because it was the best choice for him for kindergarten. It's a good school. He loves it. When I see him making the sign of the cross- my good Presbyterian/Ecumenical son, I have to resist an inward cringe.
    Haviing grown up RC, I consider myself an insider. I love good liturgy, think we should move to weekly communion, and appreciate the overall movement within Protestantism to being more sacramental. There may be others, and many in the pews, who have a similar journey. There is a complexity to certain signs and rituals.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!