Ask Andrew #2 (2021): Making the Sign of the Cross

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew #2 (2021): Making the Sign of the Cross

Scriptures: 2nd Timothy 3:14-17

John 15:9-17


Why don’t Protestants cross themselves (make the sign of the cross)? Why do Catholics touch the left shoulder first and Orthodox the right?

I would like to start this off with a comment about my own perspective:

I grew up in Quebec in the 1960s and 70s. It was a strongly sectarian society with school boards separated between Catholics and Protestants (Protestants included anyone who wasn’t Roman Catholic). I remember the feeling of being a religious minority with the constant sense that we might be overwhelmed if we didn’t maintain our own sense of identity.

The fact of the Quiet Revolution didn’t help. We knew people were leaving the Protestant churches in droves. We didn’t think about what was happening to the Catholics; we just felt increasingly endangered.

It is my hope & prayer that none of the prejudices I learned back then resurface in this sermon; but the trouble with unconscious bias is that it is just that: unconscious. So, if they do resurface, please feel free to call me out.

Our question today has two parts, so lets look at them separately:

Why don’t Protestants cross themselves?

The question came with an anecdote that will help with the answer:

I have a good anecdote about people crossing themselves:

When I was in Greece in the 80’s, some of my older relatives would cross themselves when they got in a car instead of putting on their seatbelts. Now if they had crossed themselves and put on their seatbelts that would have made sense to me, but this seemed to be some sort of alternative to putting on a seatbelt.

The Protestant Reformation marked the end of the Middle Ages: the printing press had been invented and the reformers were determined

to apply the principles of Reason to the question of faith.

They were quite fierce about this. They also were unhappy with the authority that had developed in the Vatican which they felt was being used to keep people ignorant. This was around the same time that the teachings of Galileo were being suppressed by the church and it may well be that the church was harder on Galileo because its authority was being challenged by the Reformation up north.

Many priests in those days were illiterate; they learned the Latin services and rituals by rote.

The reformers wanted to raise everyone’s level of education, particularly because they rejected the authority of Rome and demanded that scripture be the sole authority as the most reliable testament to the life and teachings of Jesus. And for that to work, people had to learn to read and have the scriptures in their common languages.

That deliberate focus on the supreme authority of scripture meant that a lot was thrown out. Teachings adopted by Church Tradition were thrown out, venerating the saints, praying to Mary, saying the rosary; it was all rejected.

If something hadn’t been specifically mentioned in scripture, it was thrown out or at least considered with deep suspicion.

That’s why Reformed Protestants only have two sacraments: Baptism and Communion: because Jesus is shown in the Bible as commanding them.

You’ll notice I said “Reformed Protestants”. There are branches of Protestantism that are not so extreme. The Anglicans, for example, recognize four sacraments and there are many Anglicans who cross themselves, too. Parts of the Lutheran communion are moving in that direction, too.

But Calvin, Melancthon, Karlstadt and others were determined that most practices and teachings that came after the Bible should be stripped of authority and viewed as a kind of superstition or even blasphemy. Those same Reformers would view the anecdote the same way. Once they got their minds around cars and seatbelts, they would reject the ritual of making the sign of the cross as a kind of magical invocation, as a way of avoiding personal responsibility by making God responsible for our safety.

That’s the kind of thing the Reformers said they were fighting when they got rid of crucifixes and sometimes crosses; when they broke icons and painted over murals on the walls of churches and even when they banned hymns from worship, in the most extreme cases.

The ban on making the sign of the cross carries on to this day although I should point out an exception: in our current baptismal liturgy I make the sign of the cross with my thumb on the forehead of the person being baptized.

For the second part of the question, let me briefly get into the more general question of making the sign of the cross. It has always had several forms, often and most anciently over the heart or forehead as a very small cross. The bigger sign of the cross grew over time, firstly as the priest or bishop would say a blessing and make the sign of the cross over the people, then as the people responded by crossing themselves.

For 1000 years the Orthodox method was the only method: using the right hand, and starting at the right side of the body. This carries a lot of symbolic meaning; with apologies to all the lefties out there, it goes back to the old ideas of Dexterity vs. Sinisterism. The sheep on the right and the goats on the left acknowledges a bias in symbolism that the “right” side is more “right” with God. Obviously this bias is built “right” into our English language.

Orthodox priests are instructed to cross themselves right to left but to cross the people left to right – so the people will experience it as right to left – it allows the people to mirror what the priest is doing and so learn to cross themselves correctly.

Many Catholics do cross themselves right to left: certainly all the Eastern Rite Catholics as they consciously do things the Orthodox way, but a number of other older orders do too. The change for the others started about 1000 years ago, coincidentally around the time of the great schism when the Eastern and Western churches excommunicated each other over a variety of issues.

That really was a coincidence because the reason for the change in the crossing is not clear and was not part of the schism. A number of explanations are offered:

Some have suggested that the priests were crossing the people right to left from their own perspective which led the people to mirror them from left to right;

Others have suggested that it was a result of the symbolism of the hand movement being adapted to the Latin phrase used “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti” (in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit). In the original Greek it reads: εἰς τό ὄνομα τοῦ Πατρὸς καί τοῦ Υἱοῦ καί τοῦ Ἁγίου Πνεύματος.

The difference is that the last word in Greek means Spirit and the last word in Latin means Holy, so if you want to touch your right shoulder when you say “holy” to emphasize that the right side represents holiness the order is opposite in the different languages.

These are the two main theories of how the Roman Catholic church

started to incorporate the large sign of the cross going left to right instead of right to left. I’m not sure we will ever know the definitive answer.

Symbolism plays a major role in the many rites and rituals of the Christian church. The Protestant Reformation tried to wipe the slate clean and start fresh using only symbolism that could be justified by a quote from the Bible.

I am glad that we are living in an age when the old hostilities between denominations are reduced. This gives us the chance to learn more about each other in this age when information flows so freely. I don’t know if those old Reformers would have approved, but they wanted us to be educated and take a reasoned approach to our faith.

This is a good opportunity to grow in understanding and to express our love for each other instead of our divisions.


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