Crossing myself

[Published in the Broad Street Review, 21 Jul 2013, under the title On crossing myself.]

Cross“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,” I began.

Half the people at dinner—the Protestants—stole glances side to side. The other half made the sign of the cross. These were the Catholics. They couldn’t help themselves.

My wife kicked me under the table and I continued to say grace.

This once happened at Easter dinner at my sister’s, who married a Catholic. Both sides of her family were there, and she had asked me to say the prayer before dinner.

Our Protestant side is Lutheran, and individual Lutherans (hereabouts, at least) are normally allergic to praying in public. But I had surprised everyone—even myself, I suppose—by going to Bible college, and people expect that if you go to all that trouble you might as well be useful and say a prayer when one’s needed.

I was happy to, and thought I’d reach out to the non-Protestants. Not really: I thought I’d have some fun.

Sin of pride

Liturgical Protestants—Episcopalians and Lutherans—start their services, as Catholics begin Mass, with this invocation of the Holy Trinity. But outside of that, you hardly ever hear a prayer started that way.

There’s no rule against lay people using it, but I’d wager that Catholics never hear it (either in church or at a wedding reception) from anyone but a priest. And when they do hear it—boom, forehead, solar plexus, left shoulder, right shoulder, solar plexus. As I said, they can’t help themselves.

It worked. I spoke, they crossed, my liturgically aware wife kicked, my sister rolled her eyes, my brother-in-law smiled and shook his head, and I was immensely pleased with myself.

But since being pleased with oneself is not a Lutheran virtue, I knew immediately that this wasn’t my finest moment. No one was harmed, and those words are very good words, but it was pretty weasely to utter them just to get a reaction.

When ballplayers do it

Years later, the Catholics have been getting back at me. Now cross myself.

I never had. Growing up, we Lutherans lumped the sign of the cross, incense, and ashes on Ash Wednesday into “going Catholic.” Moving your hands around in church would be like, I don’t know, wearing feathers or hopping. Kneeling was about as aerobic as we got.

I remember watching Saturday baseball on TV and how exotic it looked when an Alou brother or another Latin American player crossed himself upon entering the batter’s box. There was no pointing to the sky after a hit—not then—but here was this, the sign of the cross, before any hit could happen. For good luck, I thought? What else could it be?

Lutheran clergy make the sign of the cross, sure. But it’s a big, pastoral gesture blessing the bread and wine, perhaps covering us with it at the Benediction. That’s different: Pastors do that; we don’t.

Then a few years ago, one of those pastors explained to me that the sign of the cross is simply a reminder. Luther himself encouraged its use, because we forget. We forget who we are, we forget what Jesus did. We have words to remind us, but a sign, a physical sign, a real act, hammers it (if you will) home.

Dan Rottenberg’s question

“So why are Christians so preoccupied with the manner of your founder’s death?”

Dan Rottenberg, editor of the Broad Street Review, leaned back and asked me this question. Dan has a way of being forward while leaning back, à la Bill Buckley, and a way of smiling while jabbing, like Ali. But lunch was good—Kung Pao chicken is about my favorite thing to eat; even bad Kung Pao chicken is good—and so I didn’t mind.

“I suppose it’s because without Christ’s death and resurrection there’d be no point to Christianity,” I offered.

“Yes, of course,” he said, “I understand the doctrine, but why such a big deal about the cross? What if he had been sent to the electric chair?”

“The Lenny Bruce joke, right. Sure, why not, little chair jewelry around our necks, then. Why is that a joke, by the way? It seems so obvious.”

“Well,” Dan replied, “it’s awfully gruesome.”

Shocking the system

That pastor was right: I had forgotten. Of course it’s gruesome. The Catholics—through Lutheran pastors, Latin American baseball players, and a Jewish editor—were getting back at me. Man, they’re good.

The cross is so much a part of my lingua franca that I can step into the batter’s box as if it didn’t matter, as if it didn’t signify, well, what it is.

Actually making the sign of the cross, though, shocks the system. I love the resurrection, but I don’t love this. I’d forget it if I could. But actually making a sign about death—this kind of death—forces me to remember. The price paid pokes me in the forehead, boom, my chest, boom, slams my shoulders back. Ba-boom.

A good friend makes the sign every time he drives past a Catholic church. The body and the blood are in there, and he doesn’t forget it.

Now, when I hear, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” I do it, too. That’s my way of making a big deal about the manner of my founder’s death. At that instant my entire religion, my whole confidence in what I think I believe, zooms onto a Ground Zero cross—that gruesome thing, hanging in the air in front of me.

Hanging in the air is my salvation. I’d rather have confidence—I’d rather help myself—but I’m at, yes, cross-purposes. The cross says: Get a hit, strike out, live, die, doesn’t matter. Over and over, up, down, and sideways, it reminds my brain, my heart, my strength: There’s nothing I can do—it’s already been done—that’s the big deal.

I make the sign of the cross because I can’t help myself.


4 thoughts on “Crossing myself

  1. Fred Putnam

    Dear Kile,

    Thanks! This is a a wonderfully personal reflection on something that–for worse, never for better–divides Christians, when it should unite us. Imagine every Christian signing the cross when passing any church, as a reminder that in the death of Christ we are becoming one.

    Should I accept the world as I see it, or do I need visual reminders of its veritable underpinnings, that “we are needy creatures of him in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” Perhaps the danger that we face is that familiarity really does breed contempt, so that unless we constantly interpret, explain, discuss the symbols around us they all become merely ornamental–like a piece of art, highly desired, but ignored after it hangs on the wall for a while.

    I wonder if this helps explain the iconoclasm of many Protestant groups, including my own (PCA). One of our congregations is in the process of buying an old Episcopal edifice with stunning Art Deco paintings of Christ, angels, apostles (et al.) over the altar. Their main concern (apart from the condition of the building) is how soon they can get “those images” down off the walls, lest they be guilty of violating the strictures of the Westminster Confession. I find them powerful reminders of eternal realities–in heaven the Lamb will still be “as though it had been slain”–not every time I see them, but now and again.

    The irony is that the congregation is named Christ the King (PC), and the painting is of Christ on the cross, crowned and robed with glory.

    Thanks again.

    In the Lord’s peace.


    1. Kile Smith Post author

      Thank you, Fred, for your thoughts. I’ve never given much weight to the argument that familiarity is dangerous. My own tradition went from one communion a month (for some, one every three months), to every week. People were afraid it would become too common, that it would lose its meaning. But that’s an emotional argument having nothing to do with the purpose of communion, which can never lose its meaning, regardless of our emotional state.

      So much of these things are merely emotional. Danger lurks everywhere, I suppose, where there are fallible humans. The beauty of liturgy is that it is ever-changing, but is salted throughout with unchangeables. It tends to keep us honest. The Lord’s Prayer never changes, our Lord commands us to pray it, and when we dive into it we find it always new. It is so new every time, in fact, that one cannot thinkingly get through it without stopping.

      But the thinkingly part is what you are getting to, and I agree with you.

      We ought not be iconoclasts, though taste preferences are understandable. I think what I’m hearing from you is that a fragile humility before such artistic manifestations of faith ought to be attempted before anything is destroyed.

      As to the sign of the cross and much of liturgy, it’s nowhere commanded, but it sure is a nice idea!

  2. Matthew Mitchell

    I’m quite confident that Luther himself would approve. After all, he encouraged worshipers to sing!

    Which brings us to another unexplained phenomenon: Lutherans sing (even those with more energy than talent, but (mostly) aren’t given to the outward physical signs of faith. Meanwhile, our Roman brothers and sisters make the sign of the cross on lots of occasions, wear medals, and otherwise make their identity visible, but they (often) don’t sing, or if they do, it’s a half-mumble.

    1. Kile Smith Post author

      Hi Matt,
      Thanks for the note. Lutherans and Catholics both are guilty of squandering their heritages of theology and music, but there are signs of improvement everywhere!

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