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Very Superstitious: A History of the Sign of the Cross

Reading Time: 7 mins

The sign of the cross, according to the earliest centuries of Christians, is “the sign of the Lord,” and every baptized Christian was “marked” with it.

A friend once told me, “I don’t make the sign of the cross because it’s Catholic.” That answer surprised me because it isn’t simply Roman Catholic, but fully catholic — belonging to the whole Christian Church. So I responded by asking, “What makes it wrong?” The reply was even more surprising: “It’s superstitious,” he stated matter-of-factly.

I couldn’t help but wonder if actually the superstitious person was my friend who balked at signing the cross, as opposed to those who exercise their faith in doing so. From a different angle I also thought that those who sign the cross have embraced the liberty of worshiping Christ with biblically-informed freedom, through a biblical-informed sign (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22; Revelation 7:2-4). Put in the form of a question: Was my friend’s remark the product of an unwritten law of pietism (or superstition!), or was it because anything perceived as “Catholic” is inherently wrong? 

This brief conversation had me turning over in my mind Stevie Wonder’s hit song “Very Superstitious.” A resolution not to make the sign of the cross because “it’s superstition” seems, well, very superstitious.

But there is nothing to fear about the sign of the cross because Jesus emptied the actual cross of its shame and terror when he was crucified for us upon the tree of Golgotha (Hebrews 12:2). Thereby, Jesus transformed the cross into an image most treasured — an icon of the Holy Gospel itself: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13), and “Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). To sign the cross is to recall or announce the gospel of Jesus’ victory for us over sin, death and the devil. That’s why the custom is so ancient and universal.

The sign of the cross is a ritual hand motion made by the vast majority of the world’s Christians (contributing to its catholicity), usually accompanied by the trinitarian formula from Matthew 28:19: “In/into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” For Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians (or about 80 percent of the world’s Christians), the motion symbolizes the Cross of Calvary by tracing the shape of the cross in the air or on one’s own body. It brings to mind the fact that the name of the Triune God had been placed upon us when we were adopted into the Lord’s family through Holy Baptism (in which, as St. Paul says in Romans 6.3-6, we are united to Christ’s cross and resurrection). In these established traditions of the Christian faith, the sign of the cross affirms the grace and mercy of God on account of “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

The Sign of the Cross in Church History

The sign of the cross’ antiquity also adds to its catholicity. It was in general use long before the cross or crucifix was present in worship or church buildings. However, these symbols are also found etched in gems of jewelry or graffiti form during the second century. St. Cyprian (AD 210-258) and many other early Church Fathers are witnesses to the use of the sign of the cross among the earliest generations of Christians. Given its universality in the late 100s, some scholars believe it was in use within the living memory of the Apostles themselves. Tertullian (c. AD 155-220), for example, writing at the end of the second century, testifies that: “At every forward step and movement, 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.” Elsewhere, he positively identifies the sign: “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross.” [1] The sign of the cross, according to the earliest centuries of Christians, is “the sign of the Lord,” and every baptized Christian was “marked” with it. [2]

The Sign of the Cross in Scripture 

In the first centuries of Christianity, the cross was traced by believers with the thumb or finger on their own foreheads. The baptismal rite in section 21 of The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) preserves an even older second-century practice that was in danger of falling to disuse or innovation(!), requiring pastors to seal the sign of the cross on the foreheads of newly baptized. This practice was derived from references in Holy Scripture, notably Ezekiel 9:4; Exodus 17:9-14; and especially Revelation 7:3. For these first generations of Christians, it was particularly the Revelation texts (including Rev. 9:4 and Rev. 14:1) that were understood as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and that connected the crucifixion, the name of God, and baptism into one sign — the Holy Cross. To sign the cross, then, was to confess the blood of Christ in the atonement, in the New Covenant, and in the font into which they were baptized. More simply, it said: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).

The sign of the cross is rooted not only in the Old Testament [3] but also in the New Covenant in which the Church is Israel reconstituted on account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. St. John wrote in Revelation of those who have the sign of God in their foreheads standing in distinction from those who have the sign of the beast in their foreheads: the baptized in Christ versus those who are not so marked. When we undergo the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in my own Lutheran tradition, the pastor/priest “seals” the sign on our foreheads and hearts, saying, “receive the sign of the holy cross upon your ✠ forehead and upon your ✠ heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified” (Lutheran Service Book, 268). What we do today in our Lutheran Service Book was already long ago elaborated upon by St. John of Damascus, who wrote, 

"The holy cross was given to us as a sign on our forehead, just as circumcision was given to Israel: for by it we believers are separated and distinguished from unbelievers." [4]

Crossing one’s self thus recalls this seal and confessing the invocation that is said while making this holy sign calls on our God— Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—and is, therefore, a sign of our belief. Indeed, it serves as both a “mini-creed” that asserts our belief in the Triune God into whose name we were baptized (by the blood of Christ but also into the blood of Christ). Thus, it is a line of demarcation between those who belong to Christ and those who do not yet. The sign of the cross stands akin to the truth of our salvation rather than to the deceit of superstition.

Signing the cross, therefore, stands at the foundation of our children’s Christian heritage and lends itself to a participatory, even unified, act of worship among all the baptized, no matter what age.

The Sign of the Cross in the Reformation

At the time of the Reformation, things were no different. Conservative reformers such as the Church of England’s Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and, in Germany, Martin Luther did not abolish signing the cross. Still, they endeavored to appropriate its use to significant occasions such as Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, affirming the Creed, and the benediction at the end of Mass. Luther was especially concerned about retaining this meaningful act of worship, preserving nearly all of its liturgical and devotional uses. In the realm of catechesis, Luther took his lead from St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (AD 315 – 386), who, in his ancient catechism for children, remarked:

Let us not then 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 cup we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake… It is the Sign of the faithful and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a show of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the seal of baptism, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor. [5]

Luther thought no different. He purposed to see to it that all children of the Reformation were liberated to worship the Lord in this most meaningful and dignified expression of faith and devotion. Consequently, he encouraged the signing of the cross with the invocation in his directions for morning and evening prayer within the Small Catechism. There Luther writes:

"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…." [6]

Luther’s biblical guidance, given for the spiritual formation of all Christians, breathes the spirit of prayer coupled with a solicitous act of devotion to our once-crucified, now-resurrected Lord. Signing the cross, therefore, stands at the foundation of our children’s Christian heritage and lends itself to a participatory, even unified, act of worship among all the baptized, no matter what age. For this reason, thoughtful pastors and parishioners will sign the cross not only by self-attestation to the gospel but also as a witness to children (and others) of the biblical faith of our fathers.  

“Okay,” you might say, “but how do I do it, and how do I do so without feeling, well, awkward?” Good questions. First, learn how to do it. The open right hand is used in the churches of the West, with the palm facing toward you. Now the motion: touch the hand to forehead, sternum, and then both shoulders (it doesn’t matter if you go right to left [which is the original custom still practiced in the Eastern Orthodox churches and throughout Lutheranism]) or left to right [as in the Roman Catholic Church]).  As one moves through the sign, the Trinitarian formula is prayed and confessed.

  • Touch the forehead as you say or pray, “In the name of the Father”
  • Touch the breastbone as you say, “and of the Son”
  • Touch the right shoulder, then the left shoulder (or vice versa), as you say, “and of the Holy Spirit.”
  • All the while recalling Christ’s victory on the cross of Golgotha and that you have been baptized into his life-giving blood and the name he bears.

As for getting past your inhibitions, practice signing the cross in private; check it out in the mirror (that’s how they have us practice in seminary). In no time at all, it will become a devotional act that will be second nature.

But remember, the rite is not an end in itself. As St. Chrysostom says, faith in Christ our Savior is, and the sign only has value and meaning inasmuch as it brings your heart and mind to Jesus our Lord. Perhaps, then, the essential element of the sign is that it is a physical act that indicates the relevance of the cross – of the sacrifice of Jesus – in the life of Christians who use their bodies to affirm what is believed in faith. When this is the case, crossing one’s self is good public witness and good food for the soul that longs to worship God in body and spirit.

[1]   Orazio Marucchi, “Archaeology of the Cross and Crucifix,” The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4 (Robert Appleton Company, 1908). 2 Dec. 2022.

[2] F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Eds. “Sign of the Cross,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1510.

[3]  “And the Lord said to him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark thou upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof” (Ezek. 9:4).

[4] From An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4:11. St. John of Damascus, “Concerning the Cross and Faith,” reproduced at

[5]  St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Lecture 13” in The Catechetical lectures of Saint Cyril (ET John Henry Newman. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2010).

[6]  Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 30, 31.