“Faithful cross, true sign of triumph, Be for all the noblest tree; None in foliage, none in blossom, None in fruit thine equal be; Symbol of the world’s redemption, For the weight that hung on thee” (LSB 454, Fortunatus, 6th century)
What is the history of the sign of the cross?
Making the sign of the holy cross was practiced by Christians from the earliest centuries and may go back to the apostolic times. We know that it was already a common ceremony used daily in A.D. 200. Our Lord and the Apostles gave no divine command that it must be used. Rather, the custom of making the sign of the holy cross grew in the prayer life of people who were marked by the Savior who lived and died for them on the cross. On the cross, Christians see the profound mystery of God’s love for them.
The sign of the holy cross is one of the traditional ceremonies retained by Luther and other reformers in the Lutheran confession in the sixteenth-century Reformation. Luther urged in his Large and Small Catechisms that it continue to be used. This holy sign has been used in the church from apostolic times and continues to be used in our day.
The holy cross is the symbol of our salvation, as we were signed with it at Baptism. The pastor made the sign of the cross on us the first time saying, “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.” Each time we make the sign of the cross, we remember our baptism. By making the sign of the holy cross, we become part of the wonderful history of our faith and companions in the company of saints, even as St. Paul said, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)
Do I have to make the sign of the cross? Good heavens, no! All Christians are free to make the sign of the cross or not. Through the centuries it has simply been a way of remembering our baptisms where we received the very Name of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How do I make the sign of the cross?
Crossing oneself is done by: + resting the left hand just above the stomach; + putting the fingers of the right hand together, palm facing inward toward the face; + touching the forehead (1), the chest (2), and the right (3) and left shoulders (4).
In your hymnal (LSB) wherever you see a red cross + you are invited to make the sign of the cross. A list indicate the common times for the sign of the cross to be made in Christian worship.
In the Divine Service:
- Invocation – We are gathered as those having been baptized and sealed with the sign of the cross, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- Absolution – We are forgiven in the Triune Name, forgiveness that renews our baptismal purity.
- Gloria in Excelsis, at the word “art most high” in the middle of the Trinitarian formula.
- Creed, in the end, at the words “and the life of the world to come” – We are given the life of the world to come for we have died and been raised with Christ through Baptism.
- Sanctus, during the words “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” – We who are baptized in the name of the Lord prepare for His coming among us in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
- Our Father, at the petition “but deliver us from evil” – Our Father delivers us from evil through our Baptism.
- Words of Institution, at the elevation of the Body of Christ.
- Words of Institution, at the elevation of the Blood of Christ.
- Pax Domini – The pastor holds up the Body of Our Lord and the chalice saying “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”
- Before receiving the Body of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.
- Before receiving the Blood of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.
- At the words “Depart in peace” from the Lord’s Supper – Our peace is won through the cross of Christ and has been bestowed upon us through the fruits of His Cross in Holy Communion.
- Benediction – The Triune God gives His blessing to conclude the Divine Service in His Saving Name.
Little Crosses at the Gospel Announcement
When the holy Gospel is announced, it is a common custom to trace three little crosses with the thumb: one on the forehead, one on the lips, and one on the breast. They signify and express the prayer that we may retain the Gospel in our minds, proclaim it with our lips, and receive it in our hearts. This is done by making a fist with the right hand, leaving the thumb out to make the cross, about one inch in diameter. This is done during the response, “Glory be to Thee, O Lord.”
Sign of the cross in Luther’s Small Catechism
Martin Luther instructs us in his Small Catechism with these words, “In the morning when you get up, 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.”
Martin Luther also writes in the Small Catechism regarding Evening Prayer, “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.