The Sign of the Cross: Participatory Aesthetics

Dr. Holly Ordway is Chair of the Department of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and is the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Her blog is Hieropraxis.com.

Perhaps the most clearly aesthetic aspects of the liturgy are those that involve architecture, art, and music. Howeverc, the participative, responsorial nature of liturgy means that the aesthetic dimensions of worship include the way in which the individual Christian participates in the movement of the service, a movement that is beautiful precisely because it is orderly, like a carefully choreographed dance. One very small, yet beautiful element of that participatory aesthetic is the action of making the sign of the cross.[1]

To cross oneself, one says “In the name of the Father” (touching the forehead) “and of the Son” (touching the center of the chest) “and of the Holy Spirit” (touching the left and right shoulders), “Amen.” The result is that the full name of the living God is invoked, while tracing out upon one’s own body the shape of the Cross. It is a reminder that our faith is not a faith merely of ideas, but of action: our Savior was not merely a good man, but the Incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh, who physically died upon a cross and bodily rose from the dead.

Worshippers make the sign of the cross, generally speaking, either when the full name of God is used, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or when there is a reference to the Resurrection of the dead, as there is at the end of the Nicene Creed. Tracing the cross upon one’s own body at that point is an affirmation that indeed this body, too, will be raised; the death that Jesus died upon the cross saved me, this person; it is a reminder that if we are united with him in his death, we will be united with him in his resurrection.

The experience of worship is holy, a time and place set apart from the ordinary world, not in isolation, for we are called to go forth in the name of Christ, but as a way of drawing breath, being nourished, and gaining strength to do the work we are called to do each day in the world. Having a symbolic marker for the beginning and end of this experience allows us to ‘frame’ it, better understand it, and draw strength from it. And here, the sign of the cross is connected to one small, easily overlooked liturgical element that offers a very important ‘frame’ for worship.

In many Anglican, and all Catholic, churches, there is a stoup of holy water (that is, water that has been blessed by a priest) at the entrance. The water is itself richly symbolic: water is a basic necessity of life, and so water represents life; it reminds us of creation, as in Genesis 1:1, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters; blessed, it represents the cleansing waters of baptism, and thus, freedom from sin, and the Christian’s new birth; it also reminds us of the saving death of Christ, as both blood and water poured from his side when his heart was pierced by the centurion’s spear. Sometimes, in larger churches, the water will even be in a baptismal font.

The stoup of holy water is there for entering worshippers to dip their fingers in and then make the sign of the cross, with the water, as they enter the church. It is a reminder of our baptismal vows, and of the blessing of God’s pardon of our sins, and of the power of the Spirit to make us new each day, each moment.

Then, after the service, many people will once again make the sign of the cross with the holy water, as they leave the church to go back out into the world. Tracing the cross of our Savior upon our own bodies, reminded of the life-giving and life-sustaining power of the Spirit, we go forth to love and serve the Lord.


[1]The practice of making the sign of the cross is described here as it’s done in the Catholic and Anglican traditions; it is also a part of Orthodox tradition, and to a lesser extent some Protestant traditions (such as Lutheranism).

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