So I need to say a few words to my congregation about making the sign of the cross, but it’s the kind encouragement and exhortation that I don’t mind others listening in to and applying to their own situations with wisdom, so I’m posting it here.
Anyone who attends Trinity Reformed Church knows that we are a robustly liturgical church. I preach in a white robe, our prayers, hymns, and order of service draw heavily from the great reformational and catholic tradition. And so it may come as a surprise to some that it has not been our practice to use the sign of the cross or encourage its use in our worship services. As it happens, we do have families and students from a variety of backgrounds, and when we’ve had folks come in from Lutheran or Anglican backgrounds where making the sign of the cross was as normal and pious as saying Merry Christmas or the equivalent of raising hands in prayer or worship (as is common in other traditions), we’ve assured those folks that they are welcome to continue to pray in those ways, even though that isn’t our common practice. However, I’m sure from time to time some folks have wondered about whether it isn’t something they should begin to do, and in recent months, it appears to me like there may be some slight surge in the practice. So in what follows, all I’m arguing for is the continuation of our current common practice, and I’m writing in order to discourage people who didn’t grow up with it (as an act of sincere faith) from picking it up.
Now, to begin, I want to be clear that I’m quite familiar with the traditional arguments in favor of the sign of the cross, largely falling into the categories of adiaphora, biblical symbolism, and ancient, venerable tradition. Working backwards, yes, of course the sign of the cross reaches far back into the depths of the Christian tradition. Yay, Athanasius. Yay, Luther. And yes, I know that we are to glory and boast in the cross of Christ, and yes, we have been crucified with Christ. Amen. And yes, much like Christmas trees or banners or candles, I believe Christians are free to use these signs and symbols (or not) depending on whether they truly assist people in remembering Christ and living for him. Adiaphora. Got it.
However, a number of considerations go in to my plea that our common practice remain as is, and why I would generally discourage the practice in our reformed and evangelical churches.
First, while there is a tight-shoed formulation of what is called the “Regulative Principle” that is unsupportable biblically — e.g. are there verses that positively command the exact order of worship, whether women may take communion, or whether there may be a pulpit, lectern, or even a communion table up front? So if we agree that many of these elements must be faithfully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully deduced from Scriptural principles and common sense, then there we are all agreeing that our worship must be according to Scripture but without all the huffing and puffing. And the point here is simply that we must never fall into the assumption that we get to decide what practices are most useful for us. We are not, to put it bluntly, the lords of our salvation. We are the slaves who need redeeming. We are the sick who need healing. We are the dead who need raising. If the Lord sends us to a dirty stream and commands us to dip seven times, then that is what we need, regardless of how we feel about it. If the Lord hands us a loaf of a bread and says, ‘Take, eat, this is my body,’ then we take and eat. If He says that the preaching of the Word of God is food for our souls, then we listen and obey. But if the Lord doesn’t say, thou shalt touch thy head, thy abdomen, thy left and right shoulders — that should give us significant pause, no matter how many other people are doing it, no matter how venerable and ancient the tradition may be, no matter the so-called symbolism.
Second, and closely related, would be the concern that we actually do what the Lord says to do before we begin introducing other “good” ideas. As it happens one of the significant problems with the ancient and medieval church was in their misunderstanding of the goodness of creation, the body, and music. Now, to be clear, it was a complex scene, and many good men were fighting in the right direction given the forces they faced on the ground, but that doesn’t justify pretending that we are in the exact same spot in the battle or pretending that the Spirit hasn’t given the Church any forward progress. So for example, the Psalms command God’s people to shout, clap, dance, and play many different musical instruments to the Lord. David danced before the Lord with all his might and made his wife blush. While in some ways, I certainly understand that the sign of the cross may have been a pious attempt at embodying prayer (one cheer), the fact remains that they largely failed to obey the explicit commands of Scripture in the ways that Scripture actually commanded them to embody prayer. As King Saul learned the hard way, obedience is better than sacrifice. Obeying what God actually commands is far better than making up our own ways that we think enable us to obey His commands. Not only is it better; God considers our innovations to be rebellious and arrogant. I’m not saying we know yet exactly how to do all of those things that the Psalms command, but what we know is that those are things that the Lord for sure loves. If we know that the Lord loves those things, shouldn’t we be working over time to do those things? And shouldn’t that aim earn first place, way ahead of gestures that God didn’t command? Related to this point and the previous one, given all of the very particular things God does command His people, it should once again be a rather striking thing that God hasn’t commanded this. He could have very easily taught the Hebrews to make the sign of the cross, but He didn’t. Paul could have reminded the churches to remember to make the sign of the cross, but He didn’t. Instead, he’s always reminding us greet one another with the kiss of peace. Well, huh.
Third, Jesus warns explicitly against public shows of piety. If you want to cross yourself in private where no one but the Lord sees you, that’s between you and God. But when we gather together as the people of God, we gather as an army, in battle array. This is what liturgy means. It is the work of the people, our spiritual sacrifice, our reasonable service. This is why it is also called our “common prayer.” It is what we do together, as a body. While I would still protest on the grounds mentioned above, I would have less concerns with making the sign of the cross in a congregation that did so together, in unison. But this has not been the historic practice of the presbyterian and reformed churches, not to mention American evangelical churches. And thus, to make the sign of the cross in our church is to stand out, to act the individualist, to make a show and a spectacle of your prayers. And Jesus says that you should not do that. Do not pray in order to be seen by men. And for the same reason, I tend to frown on the practice of folks raising their hands sort of willy-nilly during worship services. Though it should be pointed out, at least they have Bible verses! And truth be told, even in many “non-liturgical,” semi-charismatic churches, everybody does raise their hands at roughly the same time during the chorus, (almost like it was planned!).
Lastly, some questions to consider: When we gather for worship, what is our aim? Is our aim to make sure we *feel* worshipful, to make sure our needs are being met? Or is our aim to bow before the Lord of the Universe in humility and joy and in obedience? Should our greatest concern be with what *I* can do or is it more about what *we* have gathered to do together? Would you ever raise your hands or clap your hands during a hymn (all by yourself)? If not, why not? If you’re going to stand out and do something different, why not do something you know the Lord loves? Are our postures, gestures, etc. encouraging others to join together in one heart and one voice? Or is there any chance that our personal preferences are creating barriers, distractions, or confusion for others who may not understand or be confused by our actions?
The point here may in some ways come down to Paul’s exhortation to love your brothers, and especially when it comes to questionable matters, why allow anything to interrupt fellowship or be a potential cause for confusion or division? There are enough non-questionable matters that the Church still needs to figure out that will be challenging enough as it is. And besides, if you are a Christian, you already bear the sign of the cross. Your baptism is the indelible sign that God placed on you that forever proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And, as I recall flirting with promoting the sign of the cross many years ago, I’m filing this post under “retractions.”