Despite their rebellion against the Catholic Church five centuries ago, Protestants agree with Catholic in recognizing the cross as the unique symbol of Christianity. Many place the symbol of the cross upon their Bibles, pulpits, steeples, and car bumpers.
Yet most Protestants reject the idea of placing the sign of the cross upon themselves. This rejection fails to recognize that the sign of the cross is an ancient and scriptural help to Christians.
The sign of the cross reflects biblical reality. The cross of Christ is the crossroads of history and the central event of Scripture. Just as in the Church year Good Friday stands between Advent and Easter, so the Crucifixion stands between the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
Scripture teaches that the purpose of the birth of the Son of God was to die. He came to redeem, ransom, and restore a people–his church. We should place the cross on ourselves as a reminder of the reality of the Crucifixion.
John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, recognized the biblical nature of the sign of the cross. He encouraged his flock, “When, therefore, you sign yourself, think of the purpose of the cross, and quench any anger and all other passions. Consider the price that has been paid for you.”
It may be asked: If the sign of the cross is rooted in biblical reality, why have “Bible-believing” Protestants rejected the sign?
The answer lies in the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Nothing not explicitly mentioned in Scripture is to be accepted. Protestants cling fiercely to this principle even though it isn’t itself mentioned in Scripture. Catholics reject the principle and look to the Church to explain biblical truth. This same Church has taught the usefulness of the sign of the cross for centuries:
The early Christian apologist Tertullian wrote, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.”
Athanasius, the great bishop of Alexandria who almost single-handedly stood for Christian orthodoxy against the powerful Arian heresy, taught his flock that “by the sign of the cross…all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from Earth to heaven.”
Cyril of Jerusalem echoed Tertullian as he encouraged the Church: “Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the cross, as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow and on all occasions over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings, before sleep, on lying down and rising up, when we are on the way and when we are still.”
The great bishop of Cappadocia, Basil, taught that the sign of the cross was a tradition the originated with the apostles, “who taught us to mark with the sign of the cross those who put their hope in the name of the Lord.”
Even Martin Luther urged his followers to use the sign. In his Catechism of 1529 he instructed fathers to teach their households the following: “In the morning, when you rise from bed, sign yourself with the holy cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’…At night, when you go to bed, sign yourself with the holy cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.'”
The Christian who rejects the sign of the cross is rebelling against his own roots and is guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” about the superiority of modern thinking. Instead we should learn from our fathers, thereby heeding the wisdom of Bernard of Chartres, who recognized that the history of the Church Church enables us to be “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Southern philosopher Marion Montgomery writes of the need to recover “known but forgotten things.” We Christians, being finite and fallen, must be reminded who we are: subjects and children of the Lord. “We have the mark of the cross upon our souls,” wrote Augustine, and placing the sign upon ourselves reminds us of this truth.
In his classic Screwtape Letters, Lewis revealed remarkable insight into the nature of mankind. As a senior devil in the Lowerarchy of Hell, Screwtape writes to a junior tempter, Wormwood, with helpful hints on how unsuspecting human beings may be lured by temptation.
One counsel from Screwtape concerns the relationship between body and soul, in particular the relationship between prayer and kneeling. He says: “At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers, for they constantly forget, what you [Wormwood] must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
Lewis’s point is profound: Kneeling reminds us to whom we are praying, thereby prompting us to be more prayerful. In the same way, making the sign of the cross reminds us of the one who bought us with his own body, and that reminder prods us toward holiness.
As justification of their rejection of the sign of the cross, Protestants point to perceived abuses, such as when a baseball player crosses himself before stepping into the batter’s box. Aside from the difficulty of determining motives of another individual, such arguments forget that many good things are abused and counterfeited, yet we do not reject them.
Augustine answered this fallacious reasoning sixteen centuries ago by teaching that “abuse does not negate use.” Improper use of an object does not mean we abandon its proper use–and so we Catholics will reject Protestant prejudice and will continue to place upon ourselves the holy sign of the Triune God.