The night before Ash Wednesday, I had a dream. I usually don’t remember my dreams, but this time I did. I was teaching a theology class on making the sign of the cross at the imposition of ashes on the forehead. I then explained to (I assume) my mostly Baptist students that it was the same sign pastors and priests make on babies as they are baptized. Just then my alarm went off, and my lecture was cut short.
Now awake, I pondered the dream. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the sign of the cross is bestowed upon the foreheads of the faithful at confirmation. And on every Sunday, after the gospel is read, worshippers make the sign of the cross on the head, lips and hearts as a reminder to follow the gospel with one’s whole self. Several traditions that anoint with oil also trace the sign of the cross on the forehead.
As I reflected on my dream in a social media post, one person suggested that to make the sign of the cross in the Roman Catholic tradition serves as a prayer to the Trinity. With the mention of ashes, another person asked if I had heard “Beautiful Things” by the Christian alternative rock group Gungor. The song includes these lyrics: “You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of the dust. . . You make beautiful things out of us.”
“What would it look like for Baptists to recover and reclaim the old tradition of making the sign of the cross?”
I find it interesting that the sign of the cross swiped with ashes on Ash Wednesday to mark our mortality and our ending is also the sign that at baptism marks our beginning as followers of Jesus. And that those in Christian traditions that bodily act out the sign of the cross do so in joy or in sorrow, in confidence or in fear.
The sign of the cross traces its roots to ancient Christianity. As early as the beginning of the 3rd century CE, the ancient church theologian Tertullian identifies the making of the sign of the cross upon the forehead as a tradition:
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.
The cross itself carries this notion of paradox: that death can lead to life. The person whom we consider our Savior is a person who as one of us died as all of us will do. The season of Lent solidifies the “not yet” part of the world. It reminds us of our frailty, our mortality. Ashes and the cross come together, and we aren’t sure where we might find relief. Crucifixion is ever present to us. Time seems slow, a burden.
The 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich’s notion of time – of creation, death and redemption – seems to be collapsed into one. In Revelations of Divine Love, she declares that “before [God] made us, [God] loved us, and we were made to love [God].” She describes when God created humanity’s body, God “took the slime of the earth, which is matter mixed and gathered from all [material] things, and from that God made [humanity’s] body…” God’s love connects the acts of creation and redemption.
For Julian, whose visions of the cross continually remind her of Christ’s suffering, there remains a glimmer of hope. In the Triune God’s act of creation, we are redeemed. The slime of the earth that marks our creation also marks Jesus’ incarnation – for he too was composed of slime. Of dust.
“Somewhere in that tracing of the sign we also remember, however faintly, that the way of the cross is also the way of life.”
What would it look like for Baptists and other Protestants to recover and reclaim the old tradition of making the sign of the cross? Many of us have crosses that hang in our homes or around our necks. Many of our churches display crosses on the pulpit or in other places in the sanctuary. At times, the abundance of crosses can feel like more of a fashion statement than a sign of our faith. However, whether from our fear of Catholicism or superstition, we’ve abandoned the ancient ritual of engaging our bodies in making the sign of the cross.
In making such a sign, we remind ourselves that God is with us in those happy moments, such as a baptism or a blessing, and the more sober and tender ones on the deathbed or in an Ash Wednesday service. We engage not just our minds and our hearts, but our material bodies, our dust-ness, reminding ourselves that we encounter God on every level, with our whole selves.
In tracing the sign of the cross, we contemplate Jesus’ life and the events that led to his death. And somewhere in that tracing of the sign we also remember, however faintly, that the way of the cross is also the way of life.
Perhaps Lent, the season of introspection and penance, is the perfect time – even for us Baptists – to begin making the sign of the cross.