The sign of the cross was in the headlines this week, a rare place for an ancient Christian gesture.

Considered to be largely an exclusive Catholic tradition, it might surprise many evangelicals that its origins and use long predate the Reformation.

In fact, Turtullian, a Christian author who lived in the second and third centuries, specifically mentions it in his writings.

“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 foreheads with the sign of the cross,” he wrote.

In yet another passage, he notes, “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”

Basil, who was Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, wrote that it was the apostles who “taught us to mark with the sign of the cross those who put their hope in the Lord.”

Others have noted various references to God’s seal on believer’s foreheads, including three in the Book of Revelation (7:3, 9:4, 14:1). There are other passages in the New Testament, including the apostle Paul’s statement, “You have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise,” that some cite as inspiring its use.

Early followers of Jesus were known to make a small sign of the cross with a few fingers on their foreheads or lips. Exactly why or when the larger sign evolved isn’t known for sure, though there is agreement it was motivated by a desire to both confirm and witness to the truth of the Trinity and the sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus.

Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century, once wrote: “Let us then not 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 and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest.”

It appears that it wasn’t until the Reformation in the 16th century when the tradition of the sign of the cross began to lose favor with some, believing it to be overly ritualistic and superstitious.

There’s no doubt that some allowed it to become rote routine, void of meaning. Others have co-opted this sacred gesture for sacrilegious use. Sadly, it became all too common. Caesarius, who was bishop of Arles in the south of France in the sixth century, felt it necessary to chastise those who would make the sign of the cross before robbing someone or committing adultery.

Make no mistake: The Lord cannot be mocked. He will never bless evil.

Although the gesture began to fall out of favor with protestants following the Reformation, Martin Luther saw great value in it. He wrote:

In the morning, when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say, ‘In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ … In the evening when you go to bed, make the sign of the holy cross and say….

 In an increasingly secular and hostile world, the sign of the cross in the right setting and expressed for the right reasons, has the potential to serve as a countercultural act. But like Caesarius wisely and even presciently warned, it should never be associated with sin, evil or wickedness.


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