Bonhoeffer’s blessed sign

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been dipping in an out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and was surprised to discover that he used the sign of the cross in his daily prayers.

In a letter from November 21, 1943, he says this: “I’ve found that following [Martin] Luther’s instruction to ‘make the sign of the cross’ at our morning and evening prayers is in itself most useful. There is something objective about it. . . .”

Growing up, I always understood the sign of the cross to be empty superstition. I am grateful to have learned otherwise since then and use it many times a day in prayer. (I talk about some of the reasons why here.) My old understanding has, however, left me prejudiced—I assume that evangelicals do not use it, let alone prescribe its use to others.

But then there’s Bonhoeffer, taking comfort in signing himself while imprisoned and Luther instructing every Lutheran since his own day to “bless yourself with the holy cross,” as he says in his Small Catechism. Luther actually instructed its use on other occasions as well, not only for morning and evening prayer, but also for baptism and ordination.

To double the intrigue, in the same letter Bonhoeffer says, “don’t suppose we go in very much for symbolism here [in prison]!” And also: “my fear and distrust of religiosity have become greater than ever here.” And yet he signs himself. Why?

Signing oneself is not merely a symbol. It is, as Bonhoeffer says, “objective.” There is something tangible and actual about it. Second, signing oneself is not mere religiosity. It’s communion with God. That is because, at bottom, the act of faithfully signing the cross is an act of prayer, one that is physical, a remembrance, a benediction, a collect that gathers every trial, worry, and fear, and consigns it to the care of Christ.

It can also be used to express gratitude at a meal, joy at a blessed occurrence, repentance in a moment of sin, resistance in a moment of temptation, and faith when undertaking any task (with emphasis on the any).

It’s always been this way in the church. As Tertullian wrote in the year 204 in an essay called The Crown, “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 [of the cross].”

Christ bore the cross for every needful thing in our life, and we demonstrably acknowledge as much in its sign. Bonhoeffer said the sign of the cross was objective, “and that is what is particularly badly needed here.” Here, too.

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  • This is really interesting to me, Joel. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church and yet didn’t understand what it meant to have a personal relationship with God until college. I now attend a non-denominational church, but at family gatherings am always confronted with this concept of crossing oneself as everyone else in my family does it after we pray for our meal.

    I must admit that I’ve believed it to be more superficial or even superstitious, but the thoughts you share here cause me to pause and think. Thanks for opening my eyes to a new way of viewing it.

    • Ted squires

      Joel I enjoyed your thoughts and view— I have enjoyed the book very much-

      • Excellent to hear, Ted. Hope things are well with you.

    • Stephanie, I’m glad that it’s given your family and faith story some additional context. I think anyone in any tradition can do things by rote — whether it’s crossing oneself, singing in worship, reading from a prayerbook, or whatever. The essential thing is the relationship. The practices and trappings, if not done in faith, are unhelpful. I wonder what would happen in your family if you could join your vital relationship with Christ to your heritage — I wonder what kind of witness you could be within your own family for renewed and vital faith.

  • Jim Thomason

    It is a shame that physical forms of expression are taught to young Evangelicals as superstition. The original forms of worship included such physicality as crossing oneself, incense, holy water, statues, etc… were not meant as idols but to use the physical senses to make the worship experience real. Well written and thoughtful post Joel. Thank you.

    • Thanks for that observation, Jim. Crossing oneself or the use of incense in worship, etc., can and should enhance our prayer life. For those that have started down that path (or are many miles along already), that fact far outweighs any undue concern about superstition. In my experience, my faith has been renewed and strengthened by these more physical practices.

  • Good article. I’m an Orthodox catechumen, so I make the sign of the cross regularly, but reading this perspective is interesting to me because I too grew up with the mentality that it’s “empty superstition”, about this and other things as well. That’s changed now, of course, but I’m still getting used to it (i.e., it still feels a little weird!). I definitely am appreciating the physical side of spirituality. Makes things seem more real in a sense.

    • It felt weird to me for a little while, too. Now it’s second nature, and I can hardly imagine not doing it. I find it’s the very first thing I do when I think about praying for someone. It’s almost as quick as the thought, and it helps me get focused on my prayer (something I really need).

  • Joan Kirkpatrick

    Thanks, Joel for the post on the cross. Signing the cross places me into community, I am a part of Him, I belong to Him. I am His.

    • Amen. Thanks for bringing that up. The truth is that signing oneself in the congregation (or with an awareness of the congregation if you are apart for some reason) is very much like common prayer. It’s a very powerful symbol of our connectedness to each other and to Christ.

  • Rich Goulette

    Joel, saw your post via Randy Elrod’s ReCreate Conference Daily. Could it be that the sign can go back to Deuteronomy 6, right in the middle of the Shema, v. 8. “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” Or loving the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength? I think what’s critical is that it’s intentional, not just mindless movement. Thanks for the post!

    • Wow. Interesting connection. It certainly shows the importance of a demonstrable, physical statement. You’re right about the need for it to be intentional. Vainly crossing oneself is the same as vainly saying one’s prayers. The intent is communion with God, but if the way we go about the action is hollow and not addressed to God, then it avails nothing.

  • Donna St. Sauver-Protzel

    Very interesting reading. As a cradle Catholic I took for granted the holy act of crossing myself, but found I missed it during a ten year stint as a young adult in the United Methodist Church.I knew it was more than mere habit for which I was yearning. It was, in fact, the tangible actuality of which Bonhoeffer speaks. I am now reconnected with my Catholic community. I embrace physical expressions of my faith. Before a meal, in the face of a blessing, if I hear I siren, I cross myself. It is a prayer, an intention, a submission, protection, connection, not superstition.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I think there are many evangelicals out there who know there’s something more but don’t have a background such as yours to inform their yearning.

  • Take it a step further, at bedtime each night, bless your children by making the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Awkward at first, it quickly becomes something that their day is not complete without.

  • Rhonda

    Joel, crossing myself gives me a visual sense of the all-encompassing arms of God under which I am sheltered. Though it is I who make the sign, it is He who gives the grace and mercy.

    • Joel J. Miller