Making the sign of the cross comes automatically to me. Often, during worship, I do it almost without thinking.
But that simple gesture, I've come to believe, is like travelling. The path I make with my fingers cuts through space and time and connects me with some of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Evidence of early Christians tracing a small cross on the forehead goes back to the second century. But the origins of the gesture may go back even further.
In 1912 Herbert Thurston wrote the sign is associated with the mark of the letter “Tav” in Ezekiel 9:4 in which God commands executioners to slaughter idolatrous Israelites.[i] But before the killing begins, God commands a scribe to make a mark on the forehead of righteous people.
During the time when Greek was the international language of the Mediterranean world, the sign for Christ may have also been an X — the first letter in the Greek alphabet in the word “Christ.”[ii]
In Africa and Rome, by the early third century, it was common to make the sign of the cross on one’s forehead during the rite of Christian initiation.[iii]
And in the early fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “Let the cross as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers on our brow and on all occasions; over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink; in our comings and in our goings; before sleep; on lying down and rising up; when we are on our way, and when we are still.” [iv]
It seems that the cultural shift from tracing the sign on the forehead to making the cross on the body happened after the eighth century.
I write "seems" because, as with many historical developments, the reasons are lost to time. But in his book The Sign of the Cross Andreas Andreopoulos suggests the shift might have been influenced by iconoclasts who, having waged all-out war against icons and their makers, gave more emphasis to a Christian symbol that they considered to be acceptable.[v]
Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, advises readers to make the sign of the cross after getting out of bed in the morning and before going to bed at night, then saying “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.”[vi]
And today, “the act recalls that in baptism we were immersed into the death of Christ (Rom. 6:4) and marked with the cross forever.”[vii]
When making the sign of the cross, our fingers cut through space and time and connect us with some of the earliest followers of Jesus. Christopher Mertz, above centre, during an Ash Wednesday service at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in 2016.
An image of the crucified Jesus hangs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, on the spot tradition says Jesus died.
A pilgrim (centre, wearing a red jacket) kneels and reaches through a fist-sized hole in a glass panel to touch the stone on which many believe Jesus was crucified.
Pilgrims kneel to reach under the glass casing, pictured, to touch the stone on which many believe Jesus was crucified.
confession - thanksgiving
Few things make me squirm more than taking stock of my shortcomings — let alone my wrongdoings. So I find the notion of confession daunting.
Yet as we gather for Evangelical Lutheran worship, the first part of the service is often marked by the practice of Confession and Forgiveness or the ritual of Thanksgiving for Baptism.
The notions of confession, forgiveness and baptism are closely intertwined. Martin Luther noted in his Large Catechism (4:77-79), “Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism...”[ii]
Jesus followed the Jewish practice of initiating new converts into the faith and, according to John 4:2, allowed his disciples to baptize others.[iii]
During the earliest days of Christianity entire households, supposedly even the kids, were baptized.[iv] And by the fifth century, infant baptism was widespread.
As for confession: Acts of confession appear throughout Scripture and have always been part of private Christian prayer with the goal to “quiet the conscience.”[v] Early Christians gathered to break bread and give thanks after having confessed their sins.[vi]
By the Middle Ages, the mood turned gloomy.
The church’s emphasis on sin and unworthiness shifted people's attitudes of communion from joyful thanksgiving to lamenting one's unworthiness.[vii]
Martin Luther’s reformed mass of 1523 didn’t include a public confession.[viii] Instead, people often gathered on Saturdays to confess their sins together and be granted absolution by the priest — his power to absolve sins being rooted in Jesus’s first appearance to his disciples after his resurrection (John 20:22-23).
Gradually, the Saturday group-confession meetings shifted to Sunday mornings and became part of the regular service.[ix]
The Sunday ritual is communal, but personal confession and forgiveness is still available.[x]
In Jerusalem, remnants of a ritual bath (mikveh) beside the Temple Mount. The ridge down the centre of the stairway separated the ritually impure people entering the mikveh, from the ritually purified people ascended the stairs.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
A cruciform baptistry at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, recognized as the area where Jesus was baptized (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). It’s located in Jordan, a stone’s throw from the narrow Jordan River, at the excavation of a sixth-century church.
Baptismal site on the Jordan
The Jordan River, looking from Jordan’s bank to the Israeli-controlled West Bank. The area is a military zone.
A reminder of baptism
Confession, according to Martin Luther, is a return to our baptism.
Rev. Katherine Altenburg begins Sunday worship at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada.
Once we've assembled for worship, the music rises and (hopefully) cellphones are silenced. The chit-chat dies as we gather in Christ’s name.[i]
The Gathering Song (a hymn, psalm, Kyrie or canticle of praise) prepares us for worship.
I wish I could sing better. I never know in which key to begin, and my voice usually wanders high-and-low throughout each hymn. Yet I sing because, thankfully, it's not meant to be a performance.
Singing together serves several purposes: It encourages our participation,[ii] fosters unity,[iii] knits individuals into an assembly promoting a communal voice; and links us with fellow Christians from past generations.[iv]
By singing together during worship, we’re continuing another ancient Christian practice.
Matt. 26:30 describes Jesus and the disciples singing at the Last Supper. In the letter to the Colossians Col. 3:16-17, the writer urges Christians “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
Eph. 5:18-20 encourages readers to give thanks to the Lord as they sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs together.
And the Acts of the Apostles (16:25) describes Paul and Silas — after being stripped, flogged and thrown into prison — singing hymns to God!
Even a non-Christian source testifies to hymn-singing as being part of early Christian ritual: Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan, around 112 CE, indicates believers gathered before dawn to recite a hymn.[v]
Centuries later, Martin Luther wrote three-dozen hymns and spiritual songs. For him, singing in the local language was a way to teach the faith.[vi] But contrary to some reports, he didn’t set them to beer hall tunes.[vii]
The Kyrie — the congregation’s call for forgiveness — was originally an Eastern-liturgy praise-shout or cheer looking for God’s favour.[viii] By the time of Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, that sentiment had been replaced by the now-familiar plea for forgiveness.[ix] But in 1888 the Common Service restored the earlier notion of communal acclaim when the Lord comes to meet them. “[It] lifts the service to high levels at its very beginning.”[x]
Surprisingly, despite its importance, the Gathering Song is optional.[xi]
[i] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 106-107
[ii] Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 7, 15
[iii] Ibid., 123
[iv] Ibid., 56-58
[v] Ibid., 179
[vi] Ibid., 27, 180
[vii] Ibid., 179
[viii] Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 267
[ix] Ibid., 269
[x] Ibid., 269, 270
[xi] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 108, 123
Copies of Evangelical Lutheran Worship line the pews at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada.
Light streams through an eastern window at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and highlights angels in the iconostasis. Glory to God, a Gathering Song in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, opens with the angels’ song announcing Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:14).
Parishioners at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada, sing a Gathering Song.
Naturally, we trace many of our Christian traditions to ancient Jewish practices.
For example, the pastor's Greeting takes the form of an ancient "hello" found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
In Ruth 2:4, Boaz arrives from Bethlehem and says to a group of reapers “The LORD be with you.”
In the Gospel of Luke (1:28), the Angel Gabriel greets Mary with the words, “The Lord is with you.”
And Paul’s salutation in 2Cor. 13:13 forms the basis of the Greeting found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship[i] “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.”[ii]
Our response is also found in Scripture. In the account in Ruth, the reapers say, “And also with you.”
So whenever we begin worship, that exchange establishes a relationship of mutual service — the act of praying for each other — in the presence of God. “The moment of mutuality in the living word of God constitutes one of the seminal moments in all Christian liturgy.”[iii]
Rev. Dr. Mark Harris greets people gathered for worship in Keffer Memorial Chapel, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.
And also with you
Rev. Dr. Philip Mathai greets people assembled for worship in Keffer Memorial Chapel, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.
Prayer of the Day
My first step back to faith — well ... the first step I'm aware of — was through prayer. Most often, it was a prayer of gratitude. I was simply thankful for my wonderful wife, good health, meaningful work, and a steady paycheque.
Prayer is basic to our lives of faith, whether we call on God in the solitude of our bedrooms or pray together in large numbers.
Our prayers take many forms: thanksgiving and praise, confession and supplication, pleas for intercession and more.[i]
There are too many examples of prayer in Scripture to list here, but in 1 Thess. 5:17, written around 50 CE, Paul urges Christians to “pray without ceasing.”
For a long time the Prayer of the Day was called the collect. But it didn’t mean to collect people into an assembly. Rather, it meant to sum up — to collect — everyone’s intercessions.[ii] The collect appeared in liturgy between 432-461 CE[iii] and, until the sixth century, was improvised by the priest.
The Prayer of the Day, which encapsulates the readings for the day, generally follows a four-part formula: we address God; we praise God for specific acts of mercy; we petition God to continue with God’s gifts to us; and in the concluding doxology, we ask God to hear us because we’ve been baptized into Christ.[iv]
During the Prayer of the Day the pastor might choose to raise his or her arms above the waist in a posture called “orans.” The gesture conveys openness and vulnerability.[v]
During the Reformation, pastors used orans at important parts of the liturgy.[vi] Today the posture is encouraged, but not required.
[iv] Ramshaw and Teig, Keeping Time, 54; White, Introduction to Christian Worship, 156-157
[v] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 134
[vi] Ibid., 135
Candles, each one representing a prayer, line what many consider to be Jesus’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Orans in early Christianity
An ancient mosaic hanging in a museum in Amman, Jordan, depicts an early Christian leader assuming the orans posture.
Rev. Katherine Altenburg raises her hands during the Prayer of the Day, formerly known as the collect, during Sunday service. In The Sunday Assembly, Brugh and Lathrop write that the posture conveys openness and vulnerability.