Why Bonhoeffer made the sign of the cross

Reading Letters and Papers from Prison, I was surprised to discover Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the sign of the cross in his daily prayers. “I’ve found that following Luther’s instruction to ‘make the sign of the cross’ at our morning and evening prayers is . . . most useful,” he said in one letter. “There is something objective about it. . . .”

Growing up evangelical, I always understood signing oneself to be empty superstition. It was something Catholics did, not Protestants. And yet here’s a famous Protestant pastor and theologian comforting himself with the sign while imprisoned.

Not to mention Martin Luther instructing every Lutheran since his own day to “bless yourself with the holy cross,” as he says in his Small Catechism. Owing to my ignorance, this was also a surprise. But in fact the German Reformer directed the sign’s use not only for morning and evening prayer, but also for baptisms and ordinations.

Adding to my curiosity, in the same letter Bonhoeffer cautioned, “[D]on’t suppose we go in very much for symbolism here!” And also said this: “[M]y fear and distrust of religiosity have become greater than ever here.” According to my upbringing, the sign of the cross was nothing but symbolism and religiosity. Yet Bonhoeffer signs himself. Why?

Spirituality is physical

To begin with, signing oneself is more than mere symbolism. It is, as Bonhoeffer said, “objective.” There is something tangible and actual about tracing the points of the cross over one’s body. It goes back to something covered in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Christians, the senior demon informs the junior, “can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers, for they constantly forget . . . that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

What we do physically affects us spiritually. Whether it’s lowering our gaze, raising our hands, bending our knee, or crossing ourselves, physical actions have a qualitative, spiritual effect.

Next, signing oneself is more than mere religiosity. It’s communion with God. At bottom, the act of faithfully signing the cross is an act of prayer, one that is physical, a remembrance, a benediction, a collect that gathers every trial, worry, and fear and consigns it to the care of Christ. It can also be used to express gratitude at a meal, joy at a blessed occurrence, repentance in a moment of sin, resistance in a moment of temptation, and faith when undertaking any task (with emphasis on any).

It’s always been this way in the church. “At every forward step and movement,” Tertullian wrote in the year 204, “at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”

Declaring our true identity

This is not some superstitious innovation of the Middle Ages or the empty religiosity Bonhoeffer opposed. It’s a foundational aspect of Christian identity. Making the sign of the cross says to yourself (and anyone watching) that you belong to Jesus, that you belong to God. When faced with temptation, wrestling with a bad attitude, or feeling grateful for the mercies of God, is there anything better?

Identifying as Christian by using the sign of the cross is a physical and demonstrative way to communicate our reliance on God and our identity in Christ.

bonhoeffer main

Today I make the sign of the cross when I pray, when I’m tempted, when I drive, when I walk, when I’m thankful, when I face something horrible or difficult. It didn’t come naturally at first. I felt very self-aware and hesitant. But the more I did it, the more I came to cherish—even need—to cross myself. For any believer, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, such a confession is the furthest thing from superstition. It’s a helpful step toward serious devotion.

Christ bore the cross for every needful thing in our lives, and we demonstrably acknowledge as much in its sign. Bonhoeffer said the sign of the cross was objective, “and that is what is particularly badly needed here.”

Here, too.

Image credit: German Federal Archives.

37 comments:

  1. Joel, technically speaking, Lutherans are not actually considered “protestant.” This is an interesting curiosity to most as Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholics, and did not leave voluntarily, like all other protestants, protesting, et al… Luther was trying to reform the Catholic Church regarding some of its doctrine. A better understanding of Lutherans would be to categorize us as “Reformed Catholics.” Given that, it is not surprising at all that Bonhoeffer would make the sign of the cross. Nonetheless, you offer a refreshing read on the subject matter. Blessings!
    Rev. Eric Eichinger
    Bethel Lutheran Church
    Clearwater, FL

    1. Thanks for a great article, Joel. Our Protestant pastor has it a bit wrong, Luther desired to destroy the Catholic Church, thinking sadly, that if he brought that about, the Jews would convert & the Kibgdom would come to fruition. When that didn’t happen, he died a very bitter man, and as a protestor.

      Sadly in today’s world, we’re trying to redefine everything…. So call it what you want, it is what it is…. Something Bonhoeffer gave his life fighting against…

  2. Wow, I grew up Roman Catholic and was born again when I was 21. Interestingly I became a Southern Baptist and was told I didn’t need to “cross” myself any longer. For many, many years I did not. Then one day when I needed to get into my prayer closet I found myself “crossing” myself as in the past. I chuckled and found deep pleasure in doing so. I do this some, not always. I will do this again and again until it becomes me. Thank you for this post.

  3. Bonhoeffer wasn’t protestant. He was a Lutheran. Genuine Lutheran have always treasured historic liturgical practices filtered through the Lutheran reformation (cf. http://www.bookofconcord.org). Martin Luther was a conservative reformer when it came to things liturgical. He used the distinction between law and gospel to carefully bring the liturgy into square with justification by grace alone.

    http://www.angelfire.com/ny4/djw/lutherantheology.signofthecross.html

    1. Orthodox would differ with Lutherans on the law/grace distinction, but we’re grateful to have what commonality is possible. Luther also confessed the ever-virginity of Mary. Happy about that one as well.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly! And if you appreciate making the sign of the cross, you might also consider what Catholics do when the gospel is read – they make small cross gestures on the forehead, lips, and heart, to symbolize taking the gospel Truth into one’s mind, to speak it, and to bring it into the heart. I still do that often and the very physical nature of the gestures is meaningful to me.
    Also – during RCIA (which is the process for becoming Catholic as an adult), there is a ceremony during which a candidate is presented to the congregation by their mentor. As I recall, It’s very physical in nature – your mentor touches your head, your ears, your eye(lid)s, your lips, your palms (particularly liked this one as it’s a very physical reminder of how to live out the gospel with your hands), and speaks over each of them. Very powerful.
    FWIW I was raised Baptist, attended Presbyterian (PCA) most of my adult life, considered becoming Catholic in my mid-20s and went through 7 months of RCIA, and now attend an Anglican church. Each of those traditions, and others!, have something valuable to teach us IMHO.

  5. I believe the question is what motivates you to sign the cross (or clasp your hands or bow your head or close your eyes & al) and what benefit is it to you. We should approach the throne with both boldness and reverence. Our boldness comes from knowing that we are children of God whom he loves and because Jesus has washed our sins away allowing us to enter into God’s presence. Our reverence should come from a humbleness knowing that God is the author of all and every breathe is a precious gift from Him.

    These symbols should be an outward sign of our reverence, our respect. They should remind us to be humble, especially in His presence.

    On the other hand, they can become rote and talismanic for some. That is where the criticism comes from protestant quarters. They too have practices that have become rote and, in some cases, talismanic. We must be on guard that our religious practices are about worship and communion and not about invoking or controlling God.

    1. We’re all pretty good at abusing the gifts of God. That doesn’t make them something other than gifts, nor lessen our responsibility to use them properly and with gratitude.

  6. Although I grew up in a ‘charismatic’ non-denom setting (before spending a few years in an Assembly of God church and then also in a Baptist) I am now 32, and was confirmed in the Anglican Church last year after attending Redeemer Nashville for the last 6 years. The sign of the cross has gradually become in integral part of my daily walk, as well. And where/when I’m able, I tend to couple it kneeling, even if only for a few seconds. I love the provision it makes for us to pray “without words” in many instances-knowing that Christ through the Holy Ghost knows exactly what needs to be prayed on our behalf in any given moment. I feel sadness for believers who either misunderstand the act of signing oneself with the cross, or refuse to do it out of fear or skepticism. Would that the whole Body of believers take on this form of prayer constantly!

  7. A few of the above comments notwithstanding, Lutherans today are most definitely considered Protestants, perhaps the first Protestants. “Reformed Catholics” or any other appellation is merely a dodge of the reality, and the same holds for Anglicans.

    1. That was my understanding. We call Lutherans Protestant because they are part of the movement we generally call the Protestant Reformation. Just because they reformed and protested in different degrees and directions than others in the movement doesn’t make them less Protestant.

      1. Sure, this is easy-the head of the Church of England takes an oath to defend this church and describes it as the”protestant, reformed religion as established by law”.
        The US Episcopal church has a fuller title of the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA”.
        The horror at being called “protestant” is an innovation dating (around mid 19th century) from a minority movement within these churches that claimed that the Anglicans formed a “branch” of the church (along with Catholics and Orthodox), something neither the Catholics or Orthodox agree with, since they refuse to admit former Anglican clergy into their clergy without (re)ordaining them.
        Anglicans/Episcopalians had no problem with being called Protestants from the mid-16th to mid-19th century and even today most describe themselves as Protestant.

        1. THE Episcopal Church NO LONGER uses the term Protestant. It stopped using it 30 years ago. The only reason it used it was because Episcopal means BISHOP. The Roman Catholic Church also has Bishops. The Episcopal Church wanted to make sure people would know they weren’t part of the Roman Catholic Church by adding PROTESTANT.

  8. Growing up in the Lutheran church, I would watch the pastor give benediction making the outward sign of the cross to the congregants. I always felt that I should be able to do that, it seemed to bring a certain closeness to Christ, but alas it was frowned upon. Having returned to the the fold, some 40 years later, I now embrace making the sign of the cross reminding myself what it was to be without, all those years. It brings that special remembrance of what was done for me, us, by Christ.

  9. Great article. As a Lutheran I noticed the comments about being called Protestant but did not see any distinction being made. Lutherans could have been called Protestant in the past due to the reformation and the western church referring to the protesting the abuses in the church, however, it would not clarify the difference in views on core matters, Word and Sacrament, between today’s protestants and Lutherans.

  10. According to Robert E.Shoemaker (in “The Origin and Meaning of the Name
    ‘Protestant Episcopal’, American Church Publications, 1959), the word “Protestant” was first used at the Diet of Speyer” 1529 and referred only to a Lutheran. (The word is not found in the Church of England’s Prayer Book or Articles but is used in a few official places.) As for Martin Luther, one acknowledges Luther’s upon Church and general European history – for good and ill. The very fine recent film “Woman in Gold” has reminded me of his terrible attacks upon the Jews (with attitudes of course that some other leading Christians earlier had shared at least in part – Augustine, John Chrysostom, Ambrose to mention just a few). Luther came to call for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues, the removal of Jewish civil rights, and the taking of Jewish valuables and other possessions. The Nazis quoted the words of Luther to justify their actions in those respects (though of course Luther did not propose the extermination of the Jewish people).

  11. Brother Roger of Taize (a Swiss Calvinist pastor) encouraged the making of the sign of the cross “because salvation touches every part of us.”

  12. We confessional–that is to say, conservative–Lutherans make the sign of the Cross all the time. It certainly isn’t frowned on. There have been some liberal or pietist strains that got away from it, but this is simply Lutheran practice. As you say, it’s taught in Luther’s catechism! Some also don’t seem to be aware that Lutherans follow the historic liturgy. We are also very sacramental. The reaction against liturgy and the sacraments among most Protestants is why some Lutherans don’t consider themselves such.

    1. Thank you for adding that perspective, particularly why some might distance themselves from the Protestant label. One of the interesting aspects of this thread are the Lutherans disclaiming the label. In casual parlance, I’ve always sliced Christianity three ways: Protestants, Catholic, Orthodox (including the Oriental Orthodox). The Anglo-Catholics seemed like a transitional group that got stuck on the fence. But I never really imagined Lutherans would push off the Prot label; to be a little reductive, their namesake got the whole party started.

  13. even the sacred Scriptures speak of physical honoring of Our Lord:

    “9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    10
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth”

    (from Philippians 2)

    when I was raised and we read or prayed aloud the Holy Name of ‘Jesus’, we would bow our heads slightly upon doing it . . . I still do this, not automatically, but with reverence . . . it just seems right to do it

  14. The Jewish blessing by the priests in the OT was with crossed hands. Moses was cruciform when the Israelites fought the Amelikites. The cross was used as a sign and a blessing in the early Church. The true religion honors the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a holy vessel. False religions consider the body evil. We were redeemed by the Body of Christ crucified. What could be more of a Christian sign than the Sign of the Cross. There are gar greater signs in the sacraments. And the greatest Sign of all “is what it signifies” —— that is the Holy Eucharist. One must receive the sign of holy Orders to be a valid priest. And only a validly ordained priest can do what Christ did at the Last Supper. We “have an altar” St. Paul writes. And we have a “sacrifice” “from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof”. The Mass is Calvary multilocated in time and place, as the Eucharist is the one Body of Christ multilocated under the appearance of Bread. There is only one true religion, outside of which there is no salvation. Luther left that religion, the good saints of his time helped reform the discipline of the Church from the inside. Luther had much to reform in himself, doctrinally and, as his life exemplified, morally.

    1. The Catholic Church no longer preaches that there is no salvation outside the (Catholic) Church. God loves all of us, His children, equally. Let’s leave the “saving” to Him.

  15. It is good to use the Sign of the Cross upon oneself, but please do not forget to give the blessing to another.

    It does not need to be a public blessing, as one Lutheran described for his minister, but a simple cross inscribed on the forehead of a child leaving for school, or a friend leaving for service in another land, or a sick person whom you have visited.

    It is a meaningful blessing…..to oneself, and to others.

  16. As an English-speaking American catholic, I have been particularly struck by the beauty of the Spanish language version of the sign of the cross, which is longer and more complicated than the English language version. It actually consists of three parts. First, the right thumb traces a cross on the forehead, the lips, and the chest, while the following words are said: “Por la señal de la Santa Cruz, de nuestros enemigos líbranos, Señor Dios nuestro.” (“By the sign of the holy cross, free us from our enemies, Lord our God.” I believe “enemies” is meant, as in reading the psalms in light of the New Testament, to refer to spiritual enemies–sin, death, the devil, sickness, and that often most formidable of enemies–ourselves, or at least our weaker selves.) Next, the sign of the cross is made as in the usual English version, saying the words “En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo (“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”) Finally, the right thumb is crossed over the right index finger to form a cross, and this is lifted up to the lips and kissed. For those who might be interested, the Spanish verb that denotes the first part of the prayer is “persignarse”, which literally means “to sign oneself”, and the verb for the second part is “santiguarse”, literally “to bless oneself”.) You can see and hear this explained by a child on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LTkMaDVQwM; although she speaks in Spanish, I think that, like the crowds at the first Pentecost, you will be amazed to find that you understand her quite well, even if you do not know Spanish.

    1. That was a lovely video with the little girl.

      I love making the sign of the cross throughout the day. I learned this at a United Methodist Church. It is a wonderful expression of my faith throughout the day. I was at Costco the other day and heard a fire truck and made the sign of the cross.

  17. A. Just got home from a Germany tour with lots of Cathedral visits and discussions about Luther. B. While we were gone was the massacre at the Charleston Memorial A.M.E. Church. My husband and I visited our local AME Church in solidarity the Sunday after the massacre. C. We are Evangelicals and attend a mega church in Southern California. D. I was raised an Episcopalian. And, E. This discussion about making the sign of the cross as we live our daily lives is thrilling to me. It is a great joy to grow older and not be “afraid” of other denominations, reluctant to use symbols like the sign of the cross for our own focus as well as testimony to others, nor so myopic that we cannot acknowledge that God is present in so many ways that may be unfamiliar to us. All we need to remember is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, is capable of handling us all and welcomes our fumbling attempts to glorify Him.

  18. If we consider Protestant (or Reformed, for that matter) to be, not nouns, but adjectives, then it is easier to understand that one can be Protestant (or Reformed), but also Catholic. We are Catholics who are Protesting the errors of Rome, or are Reforming the church. If we further see Catholic as an adjective, and Christian as the noun, then Protestant or Reformed become adverbs, modifying the adjective Catholic, which modifies the noun Christian. I feel that I can truly say that I am a Reformed Catholic Christian — Christian as the noun naming followers of Christ, Catholic as specifying the “western” traditions, and “reformed” specifying those who believe the Roman leadership was corrupting the Catholic church, and needed to be reformed. Thus all of those terms could accurately describe the Lutheran (and “Reformed”, including Anglican) churches of the Reformation.

    Perhaps the only group out of that time period to be excluded would be the Anabaptists, who saw themselves as reforming nothing, but restoring the original. While we may not agree that they restored the original, that would certainly be how they see themselves.

  19. A very interesting article and comments to read. Beautiful perspectives, stories, and all the different understandings make this blog such a delight, challenge and learning experience.
    Again Thank You Joel.
    I grew up in a very Church-Centered Household In Germany after WWII. Neither Catholic or Protestant, but a small Baptist joined with Free Evangelical Community (3rd generation). Later I was introduced to Methodists, Catholic Boarding-Schools and the Salvation Army (Booth from England). By the time I was a Teenager I was wondering why there were so many denomination and so many different ways of Church-Life and Missions. Coming to the US I encountered even more of the same.
    As for the cross sign, I do it instinctively, I don’t ask or never asked anyone, (or maybe the catholic nuns instilled it in me in my formative years) it sort of became my seal, of, to whom I belong, and no one was going to violate or intrude on this relationship, come hell or high waters. It is the only relationship I could ever, or was ever, sure of during my life, when all others have come and gone, or turned their back on me in my hour of needs or distress.

    So yes: Im Namen des Vaters, des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes. In the sign you give it a tangible Place, home and residence of what you otherwise could not make tangible like breath/wind. I think it is a beautiful gesture that acknowledges/honors the presence, commitment and your belonging to the Alpha and Omega. What Love!
    And much could be said about the evolution of the Church from its beginnings. Much bloodshed, even Luther had the Anabaptists persecuted, drowned in the rivers and tortured. All have sinned greatly, starting with the Apostle John, and fall short from the beginning. Jews are no exception thru out their diaspora to their present influence in all spheres of western life. May God be merciful to us all. Peace!

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