I have a confession to make to all my fellow Protestants:  sometimes I make the sign of the cross at the end of my private prayers. No, I am not converting to Catholicism, but I am appreciating a Catholic tradition. In fact, I am appreciating an ancient Christian tradition.

Five or six years ago, a group of friends and I attended a Lutheran church so tiny that the eight of us made up half the congregation. Consequently, the pastor took a lot of time from the service to explain to us non-Lutherans some of the things he was doing, and one of these things was the practice of crossing oneself. He pointed out that though it is often used superstitiously (like at baseball games), the sign of the cross is an ancient practice in the church that serves to remind us of who we are. I liked the idea and began practicing it, trying consciously not to use it mindlessly. It is a reminder that the cross is for me, that its benefits mark me like a seal.

Apparently, the sign of the cross goes way back in church history. In the fourth century A.D., St. Cyril of Jerusalem made the following statement:

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.”

St. Ephrem of Syria, also from the fourth century said:

Mark all your actions with the sign of the lifegiving Cross. Do not go out from the door of your house till you have signed yourself with the Cross. Do not neglect that sign whether in eating or drinking or going to sleep, or in the home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be a protecting wall round all your conduct, and teach it to your children that they may earnestly learn the custom.

Even earlier, in the second century, Tertullian wrote:

 “In all undertakings — when we enter a place or leave it; before we dress; before we bathe; when we take our meals; when we light the lamps in the evening; before we retire at night; when we sit down to read; before each task — we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”

It might surprise my fellow Protestants to know that Martin Luther supported using the sign, too. Here’s a page of his writings concerning it, and here is one quote:

In the morning, when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Can the sign of the cross be used superstitiously. Yes. The sign itself cannot ward off the devil, nor can it bring anyone good. But the physical sign can serve as a reminder of what our Lord has done for us and what he will do. It can be a real encouragement.

This site offers a lot of helpful information, some of which I have already used. It tells several ways in which the sign of the cross is done, which I have copied and pasted below.

The Sign of the Cross is made thus: First choose your style:

  • Option A. With your right hand, touch the thumb and ring finger together, and hold your index finger and middle finger together to signify the two natures of Christ. This is the most typical Western Catholic practice.
     
  • Option B. Hold your thumb and index finger of your right hand together to signify the two natures of Christ
     
  • Option C. Hold your thumb, index finger, middle finger of your right hand together (signifying the Trinity) while tucking the ring finger and pinky finger (signifying the two natures of Christ) toward your palm. This is the typically Eastern Catholic practice.
     
  • Option D: Hold your right hand open with all 5 fingers — representing the 5 Wounds of Christ — together and very slightly curved, and thumb slightly tucked into palm

Then:

  • touch the forehead as you say (or pray mentally) “In nomine Patris” (“In the name of the Father”)
     
  • touch the breastbone or top of the belly as you say “et Filii” (“and of the Son”)
     
  • touch the left shoulder, then right shoulder, as you say “et Spiritus Sancti” (“and of the Holy Ghost”). Note that some people end the Sign by crossing the thumb over the index finger to make a cross, and then kissing the thumb as a way of “kissing the Cross.”

Any thoughts? Is this an idolatrous practice? Or a comforting reminder?

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