Why Christians of all kinds make the sign of the cross

Reading Letters and Papers from Prison, I was surprised to discover Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the sign of the cross in his daily prayers. “I’ve found that following [Martin] Luther’s instruction to ‘make the sign of the cross’ at our morning and evening prayers is . . . most useful,” he said in one letter. “There is something objective about it. . . .”

Growing up evangelical, I always understood the sign of the cross to be empty superstition. It was something Catholics did, not Protestants. And yet here’s Bonhoeffer, comforting himself with it while imprisoned—not to mention Luther instructing every Lutheran since his own day to “bless yourself with the holy cross,” as he says in his Small Catechism. And Luther directed its use not only for morning and evening prayer, but also for baptism and ordination.

Adding to the curiosity, in the same letter Bonhoeffer cautioned, “[D]on’t suppose we go in very much for symbolism here!” Plus: “[M]y fear and distrust of religiosity have become greater than ever here.” And yet he signs himself. Why?

To begin with, signing oneself is more than mere symbol. It is, as Bonhoeffer said, “objective.” There is something tangible and actual about tracing the points of the cross over one’s body. It goes back to something covered in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. “At the very least,” says the senior demon to the junior, Christians “can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers, for they constantly forget . . . that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” What we do physically affects us spiritually. Whether it’s lowering our gaze, raising our hands, bending our knee, or crossing ourselves, physical actions have a qualitative, spiritual effect.

Next, signing oneself is more than mere religiosity. It’s communion with God. At bottom, the act of faithfully signing the cross is an act of prayer, one that is physical, a remembrance, a benediction, a collect that gathers every trial, worry, and fear, and consigns it to the care of Christ. It can also be used to express gratitude at a meal, joy at a blessed occurrence, repentance in a moment of sin, resistance in a moment of temptation, and faith when undertaking any task (with emphasis on the any).

It’s always been this way in the church. “At every forward step and movement,” Tertullian wrote in the year 204, “at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”

This is not some superstitious innovation of the Middle Ages. It’s a foundational aspect of Christian identity. Making the sign of the cross says to yourself (and anyone watching) that you belong to Jesus, that you belong to God. When faced with temptation, wrestling with a bad attitude, or even feeling grateful for the mercies of God, is there anything better?

Identifying as Christian by using the sign of the cross is a physically demonstrative way to communicate our reliance on God and our identity in Christ. I make the sign of the cross when I pray, when I’m tempted, when I drive, when I walk, when I’m thankful, when I face something horrible or difficult. It didn’t come naturally at first. I felt very self-aware and hesitant. But the more I did it, the more I came to cherish—and even need—to cross myself. For any believer—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—such a confession is the furthest thing from superstition. It’s a step toward serious devotion.

Christ bore the cross for every needful thing in our life, and we demonstrably acknowledge as much in its sign. Bonhoeffer said the sign of the cross was objective, “and that is what is particularly badly needed here.” Here, too.


8 thoughts on “Why Christians of all kinds make the sign of the cross

  1. This is really interesting to me, Joel. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church and yet didn’t understand what it meant to have a personal relationship with God until college. I now attend a non-denominational church, but at family gatherings am always confronted with this concept of crossing oneself as everyone else in my family does it after we pray for our meal.

    I must admit that I’ve believed it to be more superficial or even superstitious, but the thoughts you share here cause me to pause and think. Thanks for opening my eyes to a new way of viewing it.

    • Stephanie, I’m glad that it’s given your family and faith story some additional context. I think anyone in any tradition can do things by rote — whether it’s crossing oneself, singing in worship, reading from a prayerbook, or whatever. The essential thing is the relationship. The practices and trappings, if not done in faith, are unhelpful. I wonder what would happen in your family if you could join your vital relationship with Christ to your heritage — I wonder what kind of witness you could be within your own family for renewed and vital faith.

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  3. Jim Thomason says:

    It is a shame that physical forms of expression are taught to young Evangelicals as superstition. The original forms of worship included such physicality as crossing oneself, incense, holy water, statues, etc… were not meant as idols but to use the physical senses to make the worship experience real. Well written and thoughtful post Joel. Thank you.

  4. Good article. I’m an Orthodox catechumen, so I make the sign of the cross regularly, but reading this perspective is interesting to me because I too grew up with the mentality that it’s “empty superstition”, about this and other things as well. That’s changed now, of course, but I’m still getting used to it (i.e., it still feels a little weird!). I definitely am appreciating the physical side of spirituality. Makes things seem more real in a sense.

  5. Joan Kirkpatrick says:

    Thanks, Joel for the post on the cross. Signing the cross places me into community, I am a part of Him, I belong to Him. I am His.

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