Why do we make the sign of the cross?

From time to time I am asked the question, “why do we make the sign of the cross?  Isn’t that Catholic?”  It’s a good and reasonable question, and I’m always happy to answer it.  Here’s how I answer it.

Making the sign of the cross is catholic, but not simply in the Roman Catholic sense.  It has been practiced by Christians almost since the time of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead.  It has probably been around as a Christian practice as long as folding one’s hands to pray or saying before meal prayers.  So in terms of its historic practice, Christians have been making the sign of the cross as long as there have been crosses.

The purpose and symbolism behind it is pretty simple and beautiful.  When you are baptized, the pastor says these words over you “Receive the sign of the + holy cross both upon your forehead and upon your heart, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified”  (Rite of Holy Baptism, Lutheran Service Book, p. 268).  That was a part of the Baptism rite in Lutheran Worship (1982), as well as the “old” hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941).  So the pastor literally makes the sign of the cross over the newly baptized, because in baptism we put on Christ, are buried with Him in His death, and we now bear His holy name.

When we make the sign of the cross, what we are doing is A) remembering our Baptism; B) Remembering Jesus’ death for our sins; C) Confessing to the world that I am not ashamed to be known as a disciple of Jesus; and D) Holding up the cross of Christ as the central core of my identity.

Martin Luther thought this practice so important that he included it in the Small Catechism.  Making the sign of the cross is included as a part of both the morning and evening prayers.

So how do you make the sign of the cross?  You put your thumb, index and middle finger on your right hand together (the Holy Trinity) and begin at your forehead.  You then make a line with your hand from your forehead to the middle of your chest.  You then raise your hand parallel with your sternum, and make the “cross” part from going from the left breast to the right.

Must the Christian make the sign of the cross?  Certainly not.  This is a matter of personal freedom and piety.  Christians for centuries have found it beneficial to make a physical sign of the cross, but if that is not helpful do you, don’t do it and don’t feel bad about it.  At the same time, I would ask that you not judge those who do make the sign of the cross.  It is a matter of freedom, both ways.

God’s richest blessings to you in Christ, as we live under His cross.

+Pastor Peperkorn+

6 thoughts on “Why do we make the sign of the cross?”

  1. Thank you for this.

    I was taught to cross myself right to left, and have taught Lutherans to do the same. I was told that the Roman Catholics changed this before or around the time of the Reformation, and so Lutherans kept the old way.


  2. [Sanctified guessing mode]
    As I recall it, what really happened was that the congregation was mirroring the pastor/priest when he gave the benediction. So when the pastor gave the benediction (and the horizontal line from left to right) what the people saw was right to left.

    I have never seen any real theological reason for left to right verses right to left. Having said that, I will do it the Western way until convinced otherwise.


  3. Maybe this will help…

    From: http://www.lexorandi.org/signum.html

    The third paragraph in the document above indicated two forms for making the sign if the cross. The “left-to-right” form is prefered by the Western church. Legend would have us believe that this form was adopted as a mark of distinction from the East after the Great Schism.

    Both forms are quite natural and logical. For example: When the celebrant makes the sign of the cross over the people, his hand moves from top to bottom, left to right, relative to his own body. Thus, when the celebrant blesses himself with the sign of the cross, it is natural for him to use the same left to right action.

    The person being blessed by the celebrant mirrors the celebrant when he signs himself; but this mirror image can take two forms. You may chose to make the sign as the celebrant does when he signs himself (left to right), or you may mirror the movement of his hand as he makes the sign towards you (right to left).

  4. As I heard that Lutheran should making the sign the cross “right-to-left”
    is it true ?
    any historical background? or any reasons why?

  5. Guillaume Williams

    Because Lutherans are always right. lol. (Just kidding) I thought I remember about a meditation on the sign of the cross that went something like, “Jesus came down from heaven and entered my heart and drove Satan out.” Anyone remember this?

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