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Sign of the Cross at evensong

10 January 2014


Two questions about traditional High Church ceremonial during 1662 Prayer Book evensong:

1. Making the sign of the Cross over one's lips with the right thumb at the opening versicle "O Lord, open thou our lips" makes devotional sense as a ceremonial preparation of the lips as they begin to utter praise. But what is the point of then immediately making a "normal" sign of the Cross at the next versicle "O God, make speed to save us?"

2. People often make a "normal" sign of the cross at the opening words of the Magnificat (and of the Benedictus at matins). Some people also cross themselves at the start of the Nunc Dimittis. What is the point of saluting the Gospel canticles in that way?

The medieval offices began with either "O Lord, open thou our lips" or "O God, make speed to save us". When Cranmer conflated the seven offices into the two of his Prayer Book, he combined the two possibilities, so that both would be used at each office.

Nineteenth-century liturgists observed that each versicle had a particular ritual gesture, and opted for using both in order to "be correct", without worrying about the apparent repetition. The repetition can, in any case, be justified by pointing out that the two gestures, though similar, are symbolically different in meaning: one is a sort of self-blessing of the lips for the praise about to be uttered, and the other a ritual statement that when God saves us it is through the power of the Cross.

The point of "saluting" the Gospel canticles is to acknowledge the fundamental significance of the Gospel to our faith. In the medieval period, the offices had few if any Gospel lessons, and the canticles were almost the only Gospel quotations; such an acknowledgement of their significance was appropriate. Again, 19th-century liturgists insisted on "correctness" without concerning themselves with current propriety. Contemporary justification would be that it is still a sort of "daily Gospel".

That some make the sign only at the Magnificat derives from the issue of Cranmer's conflation. The Magnificat is the proper canticle for vespers; the Nunc Dimittus is proper to compline. The division originated between those who considered Evening Prayer to be vespers only, and those who considered it legitimately both vespers and compline. Modern practice is largely a question of what one has grown up with.

Benedict Yates (Virger)


Most liturgiolists agree that blessing oneself at the beginning of the Gospel canticles in the daily Office originated as a pious misapprehension. People made the sign of the cross at the beginning of the Benedictus because it really does sound like the beginning of the blessing of the people at the end of worship; an analogy with making the sign of the cross at the beginning of a Gospel reading may also have played a part.

Blessing oneself at the beginning of the Magnificat began by analogy, because it also was the sole Gospel canticle at Evening Prayer. When using BCP evensong, people usually make the sign at the beginning of the Magnificat, but not at the beginning of the Nunc Dimittis; see, for example, the Alcuin Club Directory of Ceremonial.

Crossing oneself before the Nunc Dimittis seems to be creeping into common practice, by analogy and/or misapprehension, because the Nunc Dimittis is the Gospel canticle of Night Prayer.

(The Revd) David van Krieken
Canterbury Christ Church University


[Nineteenth-century liturgists were not of one mind. The anonymous Ritualist compiler of the fifth edition of Mowbray's popular "plain" guide for the laity The Congregation in Church (1900), who declared himself indebted to Church Times answers to correspondents, enjoined worshippers to make the sign of the cross several times at matins and evensong, but not, perhaps surprisingly, at these points. Editor]


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