Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Making the Sign of the Cross

Most rites of baptism include signing the cross over the one to be baptized. "Receive the sign of the holy cross both on your forehead + and upon your heart+ to mark you as you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified." In baptism we are united to Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. This baptism comforts us throughout our lives, assuring us that all the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ have been delivered to us personally.

It is appropriate, then, that Christians through the ages have made the sign of the cross to remember that they have been redeemed by Christ the crucified. As early as the third century, Tertullian wrote that Christians make the sign of the cross, "in all our travels and movements. " Chrysostom in the fifth century said that making the sign of the cross reminds us of the price that has been paid to remove sin. In the Small Catechism, Luther prescribed making the sign of the cross at the opening and closing of the day.

In the Divine service we also make the sign of the cross. We do it at the invocation to remind us that God has called us together as His baptized people. At the absolution we make the sign of the cross, recognizing that absolution, along with the other sacraments, derives its power and authority from the salvation won on the cross. Also, absolution is a renewal of our baptism. At the last line of the creeds the cross is made because the creeds are a summary of the gospel that the Christian Church proclaims. The Nicene Creed was an expansion of the baptismal creed in Jerusalem, just as the Apostle's Creed is used in the in the west for baptism. In some churches the practice of making the sign of the cross at the last petition of the Lord's prayer is observed. God has truly delivered us from evil by the cross. It is appropriate to make the sign of the cross during the consecration, when you receive the elements, and at the dismissal from the table. At the benediction the sign of the cross is made. Just as God called us together as His baptized people, He sends us back out into the world as His baptized people.

At the seminary, the baptismal font stood at the entrance of the nave. As we passed the font, many of the seminarians would put our fingers into the font and sign ourselves upon entering and leaving the services. For some time now, our church has had a font near the entrance of the nave to give people the opportunity to remember their baptism in that way.

The sign of the cross is made either with two or three fingers. Two fingers represent the two natures of Christ. Three fingers represent the Holy Trinity. It begins at the forehead and goes down to the breastbone; it rises to the right shoulder and over to the left shoulder. Some go from the breastbone to the left shoulder and over to the right. The number of fingers or precise directions are not important.

Making the sign of the cross, of course, is neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. It is simply and ancient and commendable practice of the Christian Church. The gestures and postures of Christian worship exist simply to instruct us and remind us to offer service to God with reverence and awe. I commend this practice to you as God's baptized children.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Reverence and Awe

With the advent of contemporary worship, there has come a radical paradigm shift in the way that Christians approach God. The friendship of God is so emphasized that the worshiper forgets the glory and majesty of God. Yes, Hebrews invites us to approach God with boldness and confidence, but does that mean we approach Him so casually without any reverence and awe?

A local church recently pulled its pews from the nave in order to accommodate tables and chairs. Now the worshipers can come with their lattes and relax while the band plays really rad music. I suspect the church lady might say something like, "Isn't that special? Where did you get the idea for that? Could it be....SATAN?"

In the past there were some good, solid customs established in the worship of the Church that helped inspire a sense of reverence and awe for the majesty of God. The pews had kneelers and the worshipers knelt to offer prayer and thanksgiving to God. Before entering the pew you would kneel toward the altar as a sign of reverence for God's gifts. At the name of Jesus people would bow their heads. Christians would bow slightly at the Gloria Patri. When it came to the "incarnatus est" clause of the creed, the parishioner would bow deeply as a sign of reverence for the doctrine of the incarnation. Christians would make the sign of the cross at the invocation, absolution, the end of the creed, at receiving the elements, and at the benediction. Another old custom, and one that is worthy of imitation, was to bow at the consecration of the elements. They recognized, as we should, that Christ is truly and physically present in, with, and under the elements because of the consecration.

Now, of course, this can all be done in a hypocritical fashion without any true reverence in the heart for our Savior, but these old customs also had the advantage of reminding people they were in the presence of God. God is to be treated with reverence and awe. Although we approach God with boldness and confidence, we do not approach Him in a casual way.

Think about how the worshipers in the Scriptures approached God. When Moses met God at the burning bush, he not only took off his shoes but fell on his face. When Isaiah was ushered into the presence of God, He cried out, "Woe is me; I am undone. For I have seen the Holy One of Israel." When the apostle John saw the image of Christ in a vision in the book of Revelation he fell on his face, John says, "as a dead man." Don't we believe that God Himself is truly present with us in worship anymore?

So leave your latte at home and remember that it is no small thing to be in the presence of a holy God. Come and worship with a sense of reverence and awe.