In Defense of the Sign of the Cross, Crosses, and Prayer Ropes

The following is an original contribution by Craig Truglia.

For some reason, I do not know why, Protestants find the sign of the cross, physical crosses, and prayer ropes to be skeevy. Personally, I did not have an overtly religious Italian grandmother (she was too busy teaching me curse words in Italian for me to pick up the religion stuff), so my reluctance to using these things was never based upon any firsthand knowledge.

Rather, looking back on it, I remember thinking that genuflecting or using a rosary was something that was soaking wet with false religiosity. These physical movements and holy objects were just a physical stand-in for what should have been supplied completely by a spiritual, and thereby immaterial component.

In the end of the day, the Protestant opposition to religious objects and symbols is ultimately sourced in the gnostic presupposition that physical things not only do not convey grace, but they are in fact demonic in some way. In a “short” article like this, I cannot tackle something so profound and theologically engrained.

Rather, I will set out to prove that Jews and Christians alike since the time of Christ have been using religious objects and symbols for the exact same reasons. Because this is the case, Protestants should not be so skived out by them that they would go as far as to say that they are unchristian. One cannot condemn religious objects and symbols in Christianity without impugning the entire early Church and first century Judaism.

But Aren’t Religious Symbols and Objects Idols? The widespread use of genuflecting, crosses, prayer ropes and the like in Orthodoxy/Catholicism when compared to their non-existence in Protestantism (other than Lutherans and Anglicans) makes them a major tripping point for many. Why? Because something about genuflecting, having religious objects, and using other objects to assist in prayer feels like idolatry to us Protestants. We cannot help but feel that their use is proof of Orthodoxy/Catholicism’s apostasy or even degeneration into pagan syncretism. Many Protestants do not even consider Orthodox/Catholics brothers in Christ for this reason. Though this is philosophically inconsistent, as there are Protestants that use these things, it would be foolish if we did not seriously address this widespread concern.

First, let’s discuss the most common objection: “The sign of the cross/a physical cross/prayer rope is idolatrous or derives from paganism!”

To this we must respond that no one is worshipping signs of the cross or anything to that effect. This makes the charge of idolatry senseless. One would literally have to use the wrong definition of idolatry to level the charge against Orthodox/Catholics.

Further, evidence does not bear out that these things derived themselves from paganism. In fact, as we shall soon see, they appear to have Jewish origins.

But let’s entertain the notion for a moment that the sign of the cross, physical crosses, and prayer ropes were all borrowed from paganism. Even if they all did, why should this even concern us? The entire language of the New Testament derives itself from paganism. Having pagan origins does not make something bad. After all, God is eternal and not of this world–He communicates with us in time, in the world. He can use pagan languages and rites, and then adapt them for use in His Church.

Now that we have addressed the common “pagan objection,” let’s move onto the important part: the Christian antiquity of these practices. While many of us Protestants imagine that these practices were invented at some point during the Middle Ages, the hard archaeological and historical evidence points to Apostolic origins.

The Sign of the Cross and Physical Crosses. While the origins of the sign of the cross may seem strange to us today, they would not be to those Christians of early times that were handed down the Scriptures. In short, it was believed that the shape of the cross had the power to protect Christians from demonic influences. While modern Protestantism does not pay much mind to exorcism (i.e. casting out demons), this is something that is throughout the Gospels and to this day is strongly emphasized in Orthodoxy (everyone who is baptized is exorcised beforehand.)

In the Scriptures, we have numerous references of Christ’s name having the power to exorcise demons (Matt 7:22, Mark 9:38, Mark 16:17, etcetera.) This practice was allegedly continued by the Apostles themselves. In his compendium of apostolic teachings not recorded in the Scriptures, Saint Irenaeus (late second century) records how Christians continued this practice:

And there is none other name of the Lord given under heaven whereby men are saved, save that of God, which is Jesus Christ the Son of God, to which also the demons are subject and evil spirits and all apostate energies, by the invocation of the name of Jesus Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate (Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Paragraph 96).

It is within this context we must understand the sign of the cross. Signing the cross is merely a silent way of invoking the name of Christ. A couple decades after Irenaeus, Tertullian (early third century AD) records the first mention of the sign of the cross:

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice…If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? 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 [Latin: “Frontem crucis (lit. “cross”) signaculo terimus.”] If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from someone who has (emphasis added, De Corona, Chapters 3 and 4).

Obviously, the way the one did the sign is different than today (as it was on the forehead.) In the same way, the name “Jesus” in English is different than his Greek (Iesus) and Hebrew (Yeshua). Changing how one expresses a concept does not change the concept.

So, from this we may surmise that the practice of genuflecting as we do today was already an old tradition by Tertullian’s time. The evidence also points to it being widely practiced, as Tertullian assumes that his reader would accept the practice without there being any explicit Scriptural warrant.

As to what end genuflecting served, this is left unsaid in the above passage. Nonetheless, we do we know from elsewhere in Tertullian’s writings that one of its uses was for exorcism:

We have faith for a defense [against demons], if we are not smitten with distrust itself also, in immediately making the sign [of the cross] and adjuring, and besmearing the heel with the beast. Finally, we often aid in this way even the heathen, seeing we have been endowed by God with that power which the apostle first used when he despised the viper’s bite (Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting, Chapter 1).

Being that the sign of the cross must have been customary to Christians in the early third century, it should not surprise us that physical crosses were as well. Tertullian, in defending the use of crosses against critics who accused Christians of worshipping the objects as idols, says the following:

Again, he who believes us to be devotees of the Cross will also be our fellow-worshipper. As long as it is some piece of wood that is propitiated, the fashion of it matters nothing, provided that the quality of the substance is the same; the shape matters nothing, provided that it is the very body of the god…The whole camp – religion of the Romans consists in venerating the standards, swearing by the standards, and setting the standards above all the gods. Yet all those crests of images on the standards are necklaces of crosses, and those flags on your ensigns and banners are the robes of crosses. I praise your scrupulousness: you would not deify crosses bare and undraped…The object of our worship is One God, who, through the Word by which He commanded, through the Reason by which He ordered, through the Power by which He was able, framed out of nothing the whole mass of this universe with all its equipment of elements, bodies, and spirits, for the enhancing of His own majesty: and hence the Greeks have applied the word to the world. He is invisible, although He may be seen: He is incomprehensible to touch, yet may be made present through grace (The Apology, Chapters 16 and 17).

The above passage is difficult to interpret because Tertullian is using sarcasm (i.e. “it is some piece of wood that is propitiated.”) Nonetheless, we may surmise that Christians had crosses, because this explains why they would be accused of “deify[ing] crosses bare and undraped.” Though Christians had crosses, it is asserted that they did not worship them, as they worship the invisible God that the cross represents.

Tertullian’s comments on the widespread use of the cross, and its sign, is born out (in part) in archaeological finds. Third century crosses, though rare, do exist.[1] Furthermore, second century tombstones also commonly have cross-like anchors, a silent homage to both Heb 6:19 and a “shout out” to the cross of our Savior.[2] So, while archaeology does not bear out that crosses were the most popularly used symbol in Christianity, we do know that from both archaeological evidence and Tertullian’s comments that they must have existed as early as the second century.

But, why use a physical cross? Ultimately, we do not know, but it is reasonable to assume that the cross was employed as a stand in for Jewish exorcism practices. The contemporary Jewish equivalent was a mezuzah. The mezuzah was an object with Torah-verses that was installed on the sides of Jewish structures and doors.

We know from the Mishnah, a third century Jewish source, that the mezuzah was thought to sanctify homes.[3] How so? The words of God, displayed in visible form on (or inside) the mezuzah allegedly had the power to dispel demons.[4] The use of a mezuzah on Jewish homes likely preceded the time of Christ as it was in ancient times and to this day used by both Jews and Samaritans. Furthermore, Philo (a first century AD Jewish philosopher) makes mention of their use.[5] To the Jews, the words of their God in a physical object had power and this power protected them.

From the preceding, we may surmise that Christians believed symbols that represented their Savior (fish, anchors, crosses, and etcetera) carried a power similar to the written words of God in the Torah. Due to the Jews worshipping a God they have not acknowledged as seeing in the flesh, they avoided using a visible symbol for their exorcisms. Christians, knowing that God came in the flesh, did not hesitate from invoking Christ’s name in words, hand gestures, and in literal symbolic objects employed for the same purpose.

Prayer Ropes. If one were to go to Southeast Asia, it would not be a rare sight to see an orange-clad Buddhist monk thumbing through a set of beads as he prays. Protestants fail to see the difference between a Cambodian chanting while playing with beads and a Peruvian doing something roughly similar while monotonously praying “Hail Mary’s.”

Understandably, the use of something like a prayer rope is somewhat disturbing due to the fact that there is no doubt that its origins are pagan. Yet, simply having non-Christian origins does not make something categorically bad. Wearing a pair of blue jeans, even though they were invented by an Ashkenazi Jew named Levi Strauss (i.e. “Levis,”) is not an endorsement of Talmudic Judaism. Christians should be able to take whatever they like from the unbelieving world and put them to good use.

Praying with a set of beads improves concentration sort of like listening to a lecture while squeezing a stress ball or playing with a pen. For whatever cognitive reason, fine motor movements prevent one from getting distracted when concentrating on something.

Not surprisingly, Jews had by the second century BC begun using tefilin during prayer which accomplished this end.[6] Tefilin are long leather straps that are tied around the arm, to one’s middle finger, and around one’s palms. Prayers are said while putting the strap on and while holding it into place. The strap applies constant tension on the arm and the hand as one conducts prayers.

Early Christians, not wanting to copy Jewish practices, over time started created their own hand-held prayer device–the prayer rope.[7] It was not a set of beads like those used by the Buddhists (and later Catholics,) but rather a simple small rope with knots. Instead of thumbing through the rope just to simply to “zone in” on prayer, the ropes were made deliberately with a certain number of knots so one can count his prayers.

The ropes were meant not to be holy objects or simple stress relievers, but pedagogical in nature. One was to keep count how many times one repeated a prayer, keeping count of repetitions by knowing how many knots were on the rope. The point of doing this was so one can under the direction of a spiritual father increase his number of prayers to the point that they are memorized and prayed unceasingly.

So, while this intended use does not preclude from using prayer ropes as a simple tactile prayer aid, it is important to keep in mind that they are not merely such. They are not supposed to be used to help us mindlessly focus on vain repetitions. Christian prayer is contemplative and the petitioner is supposed to be aware of what he is praying. Prayer ropes, beads, or whatever else used for this end are useful and good.

Pagan usage of similar prayer aids is often the height of impiety. In paganism, petitioners use the beads to focus, because they do not pray in a language that anyone (other than a select few) understand. For example, Southeast Asian monks pray in Sanskrit and Prakrit–these languages are only used in prayer and not in daily conversation. The repeating of unknown “holy words” can understandably become monotonous and boring. Manically rushing beads through one’s fingers proves to be helpful for successfully undergoing this fruitless task–but it is understandably not becoming of a Christian to approach prayer in this way.

Conclusion. So, we have run through the gamut: Religious symbols and objects are not idolatry. Check. The historical evidence shows that the early church used them. Check. Additional historical evidence shows that Jews used analogues of these things before the time of Christ. Check.

Taking the preceding into account with the fact the Scriptures nowhere forbid them, one must seriously wonder why anyone would be so viscerally opposed to them.

“They just don’t feel right!”

Ultimately there is no reasoning with one’s feelings. So, on that note, I commend everyone to their feelings. But if they want more than that, they will be compelled to realize the Orthodox practice is doctrinally sound.

[1] Wilson, Ralph R. “Cross as an Early Christian Symbol.” Jesus Walk Bible Study Series. 2017. Accessed 8/25/17.

[2] Wilson, Ralph R. “Anchor as an Early Christian Symbol.” Jesus Walk Bible Study Series. 2017. Accessed 8/25/17.

[3] Schwarzer, Mitchell. “The Architecture of Talmud.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 60, No. 4 (Dec., 2001.) P. 478.

[4] Jansson, Eva-Maria. The Message of a Mitsvah: The Mezuzah in Rabbinic Literature. Lund, 1999. P. 50–54.

[5] Cohn, Yehudah. Tangled Up in Text: Tefilin in the Ancient World.(Society of Biblical Literature, 2008.) P. 86.

[6] Tefilin have been found at Qumran. Cohn, Yehudah. Tangled Up in Text: Tefilin in the Ancient World.(Society of Biblical Literature, 2008.) P. 96.

[7] Exactly when their use originated is not known. Saints Pachomius and Anthony of the Desert are attributed to have originated their use. From this we may surmise the use of prayer robes originated in Egypt.

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