Liturgy by TLW



For Presiders:
The Sign of the Cross at the Invocation

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America


You're a pastor, and you think you know what to do when you see that little red cross + on the printed page in the Order for Confession and Forgiveness.  Do you know the old adage about those who assume?!  There are two crosses in that rite that mean two different things (1. Invocation and 2. Absolution) and are done with two different actions, not the same action.  (Does anyone remember the day when pastors would RARELY raise their hand to bless anything with the sign of the cross for fear of appearing too Roman?  Well it's a new day and time to rethink our actions.)

I know that seeing a red cross + in the middle of any bold text initiates nearly an automatic stimulus-response for a Presider to raise that arm high to bless something or someone. Historically, however, this is NOT the action that is appropriate to invocations. A short study of rubrics and of words and actions should help.

The opening rubric of the Order for Confession and Forgiveness reads, "ALL may make the sign of the cross, the sign that is marked at baptism...."

The words emphasized in capital letters above define the action of the Presider; namely that,

1. Everyone, including the Presider, may remember their Baptism by signing themselves with the cross, and

2. The Presider, rather than blessing the congregation, leads them in this ancient action of invoking the triune God by signing her/himself.

Even more, the words spoken by the Presider help to identify the actions best suited for particular cross signs.

At the Benediction, the words are outward directed, from the Presider TO the worshiper: "Almighty God ... + BLESS YOU." "The Lord BLESS YOU ... and + GIVE YOU peace."

Similarly, at the Absolution, the words are again directed outward from (or through) the Presider TO the worshiper: "I therefore declare TO YOU... forgiveness + ."

Accordingly, the action accompanying the benediction and absolution is a signing of the cross over the people.

However, the words at the Invocation are different: not outward directed, but more inward directed as everyone gathered calls upon the triune God to be present, including for the Presider. It is the joint invoking by pastor and people, accompanied by the ancient sign of invocation, a cross made on oneself, made by all, including the Presiding Minister.

Indeed, this is such a JOINT action that Philip Pfatteicher suggests in the Manual on the Liturgy that, "The congregation may say the invocation with the minister."

Pr. Pfatteicher also writes, "Christians have used the sign of the cross and the words which came to accompany it ... as an act of invocation and [self] blessing since very early in Christian history.... already common in private devotion in the second century" (p.189).

Following tradition, Martin Luther instructs in his Small Catechism that morning and evening prayers begin with this personal act of invocation: "make the sign of the cross and say, `In the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.' "

The connection in that opening instruction between the invocation at confession and Baptism also follows both tradition and Luther: "Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun...." (Large Catechism 446:79).

Thus, as pastor and people together prepare for worship with an act of confession, both pastor and people together remember their Baptism with the invocation and personal signing of the cross.

SUGGESTION: Given this connection of Baptism and confession, it is most appropriate that the Brief Order be led by the Presider at the Baptismal Font. Then, while speaking the invocation, the Presider can touch the water in the font and make the sign of the cross upon her/himself. Word and action thus make bold the connections.

What if the Font is at the entrance to the nave? I have seen services in which a crucifer goes forward to get the processional cross, and as the cross is lifted high, the people stand and turn to follow it with their eyes as it is carried to the Font. Following confession, the crucifer leads the ministers to the chancel during the Entrance Hymn.

It should be noted that having the Font at the nave entrance encourages worshipers to "dip and sign" as they ENTER the church, again remembering the rite by which they ENTERED the faith.

What if the Presiding Minister is not comfortable making the sign of the cross on her/himself? That is a matter of personal choice which we Lutherans respect. After all, this ancient act has only been reintroduced in recent decades as an expression of Lutheran piety.

However, this is where thinking through our words and actions as Presiders is important. Since the invocation is NOT a blessing or absolving, it is inappropriate to make the sign of the cross over the people.

Presiders who do not sign themselves should simply speak the words of invocation without sign, as was done for many years at the opening of the Sunday liturgy in the Service Book & Hymnal (1958), The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), and all Common Service precursors.

SO..... watch out for those cross + signs. Make sure your responses are thought through and not just automatic.