The cross symbol has been a vital influence in the worship and lives of Christians. Here are seven historical forms of the cross explained and interpreted for today. Each page includes the history of the particular cross, a meaningful devotion and suggested daily reading for personal meditation. The sign of the cross series can serve as the basis for Lenten devotions, sermons, worship, or study.
"Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; Set me securely on high away from those who rise up against me." - Psalm 59:1
Since Apostolic times Christians have sought protection under the sign of the cross. The Trinitarian hand gesture of tracing the outline of a cross in the air or on one’s forehead and breast, left to right. Is an ancient practice Long before the cross itself came into general acceptance the custom of crossing one’s self was used As for back as the third century Tertullian, a Christian writer of that time, commented:
"At every coming In and going out, in putting on out clothes and our shoes, in the bath, at table, lying down or sitting, we mark our foreheads with a little sign of the cross."
The early Christians, during the first three centuries of persecution, used the cross Infrequently, But there is a tradition that they employed it as a secret sign to reveal themselves to fellow Christians in the dust of the roadway with a staff or sandal, then quickly obliterating it, fearing recognition. In the baths of Diocletian in Rome there have been found bricks bearing the impress of a cross. Since thousands of Christians were martyred and forced by the Emperor Diocletian to build his famous baths, it might have been a petty protest against the cruelty and persecution of the pagan ruler that some made bricks bearing the Christian symbol.
All through our history homes have been protected for one reason or another by the cross symbol. For centuries before and after the Christian era most people had a very lively fear of demons and devils. Marking one’s home with cross decorations, cross paneled doors or wearing a cross ornament were ways of seeking supernatural protection. Insanity, epilepsy, depression, hysteria, and even blindness, dumbness and deafness were considered the diabolical work of demons. Little wonder, then, that people turned to the sign of the cross to exorcise the evil forces they thought responsible for such afflict ions to humankind.
A most fascinating expression of the cross is the Maltese form. It is beautifully composed of four spearheads, all pointed toward the center. All four are of equal length, each arm becoming progressively broader with two points at the end of each, making eight in all representing the Beatitudes listed in Matthew 5:3-10. The emblem is also identified with John the Baptist and the Heraldic Crest of the Knights of St. John and the Knights Templars. As such it dates back to the crusades and the wars for the cross.
Because of the Crusaders the cross became an emblem of valor and bravery. From the Middle Ages to the present, decorations for chivalry and for distinguished service have been made in the form of the cross, Many such medals, even though they are not cross-shaped, have It embossed on them. They are rewards either for bravery in war or noteworthy deeds in civil life, bestowed not one by one but by nearly all the Christian nations.
Probably the oldest of the orders of chivalry was that of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. Long before the first Crusade a hospital was established in the Holy City by an order of Italian monks known as the Hospitalers of St John, They cared for the numerous pilgrims who became Sick during their visit to the burial place of Christ. Later their kind medical care was also extended to the sick and wounded crusaders who eventually protected them during the Moslem invasions.
A Symbol of Protection
The defenders p1 Christianity later joined forces with Hospitalers, becoming an organized order for both the religious and the military. For centuries this strangely united brotherhood cared for the sick and poor and whenever needed took up arms against those hostile to the cross. Their fame arid respect increased but finally they were driven out of Palestine by the Moslems. They captured and settled in some of the mid-Mediterranean islands south of Italy like Rhodes and Malta, the latter of which furnishes me name for this distinctive cross.
From this rock-bastioned, island fortress, the ‘Knights of the Eight pointed Cross” continued to found hospitals for sick pilgrims on route to and from Palestine all over Europe and the Near East. Malta, also, was the refuge for a shipwrecked earlier Christian traveler, the Apostle Paul, Read the account in the Book of Acts, Chapter 27.
The broad-looted Cross Palée is sometimes mistaken for the Maltese Cross. Both symbolize the open wings of a bird, suggestive of the protective power of the Cross It Is claimed that the early Christians prayed with outstretched arms, forming with the body the shape of the cross. If they did so, it was a custom that had prevailed for many centuries among various peoples, Including the Hebrews who assumed this posture in prayer.
There is to this day in many lands a similar custom among children and adults to Cross their lingers for luck or to avert danger. Many people cross their hearts when pledging secrecy or making some important promise We may call them silly, foolish superstitions but they are related to very authentic rituals rooted in confessions of faith in Christ and other expressions of gratitude, reverence and protection from temptation.
Meditation and Further Reflection
0 Lord as I trace the sign of the cross with my hand I look at my lingers and see particular significance In the different combinations of numbers. Five fingers remind me of your five wounds, three recall the Trinity and two fingers suggest your two-told nature, human and divine. I’m told the passing of my hand horn left to right across my breast signifies the remission of sins. These are curious promptings we inherit from the past. Make them meaningful without being showy or pretentious.
Lastly 0 Lord, save me from perpetuating meaningless customs related to the cross I learned that from time immemorial hot-cross buns have been associated with Good Friday. They now have little significance but long ago many believed them to be consecrated bread that would never grow moldy and that would ward off evil spirits, cure some diseases and protect from tire and other misfortunes. Faith and common sense tell me such superstitions are just that; superstitions. Help me to know the difference and to rejoice in those instances where your protection truly surrounds us. Amen.