The Cross is the simplest, the most universal and perhaps the most ancient symbol of Christianity. It represents in a simple yet very dramatic way a key event in the salvation story. One might well argue that the Resurrection of our Lord is the capstone of the Christian drama, but there is no simple way to recall and dramatize that event in a symbol.
The Crucifixion was so stark and so terrible an evidence of the love and sacrifice of God for his people, that it at once caught the imagination of the early Christians. It has held its place of pre-eminence ever since through the myriad uses to which it has been put.
The early Christians used the sign of the cross as a ready means of identifying themselves to one another; and, in time, as a means of proclaiming their faith publicly, and of expressing their joy in the salvation promised them through the agony of Christ’s triumph over sin through His death on the cross.
The use of the cross as a symbol became more and more widespread as the centuries passed. Today it is seen everywhere. Churches, and especially cathedrals, are often built in cruciform shape. The cross abounds in wall and ceiling frescoes in our churches, and is pictured in countless stained glass windows. It adorns the altar hangings and frontals, pew cushions, kneelers, pulpit, and other furnishings. It often hangs by the pulpit and embellishes the sacred Communion vessels. It is seen on service vestments of the clergy. Bishops and many priests wear a pectoral cross on the breast suspended from a chain.
The cross surmounts the doorways, spires and roof gables of churches. In the case of Anglican churches especially, the form of cross often used for these purposes in the Celtic Cross or the “Cross of Iona” variant forms of the plain Latin Cross with a circle (halo or nimbus) around the central joint of the cross.
Above all, a cross invariably stands at the central part of the altar, unless one hangs above the altar or is found on the reredos (the screen often placed behind and above the altar, made of stone, carved wood or fabric). Some Anglican churches also have a rood beam ( rood meaning cross) across the entrance to the Chancel, on which stands a cross (or more usually a crucifix) either alone or with figures of St. Mary and St. John to either side of it. Thus we see that the uses of the cross in Christian symbolism are almost endless.
The previous paragraph introduced mention of the crucifix. This is simply a variant form of the cross, having the hanging figure of Jesus upon it. The viewer is thus reminded even more vividly of the sacrificial death of the Lord for our sakes. There is a great and basically unreasonable prejudice against the crucifix on the part of some Anglicans. There is no justification for this. The crucifix is an ancient symbol, not peculiarly Roman Catholic, but belonging to all Christians. It is as widely found in art and Christian decoration as a simple unadorned cross.
Another form of cross sometimes found in churches and art is the cross with the figure of Christ the King -- Christ Regnant -- superimposed upon it. This shows Christ in His crown and glory, reigning as King. While beautiful and significant, it seems to some to be an inappropriate mixing of two separate Christian themes: the death on the cross in sacrifice, and the Second Coming in triumph to reign forever.
It should be noted that the cross, like other aspects of the Christian faith (such as Christmas), has penetrated into every nook and cranny of contemporary human life. Its use as jewelry, hung about the neck on a chain, is a striking example. This use is so widespread in our society that we Christians tend to forget how its indiscriminate use cheapens, degrades, and abuses this most sacred symbol of our religion, to the point of becoming blasphemous. It is worn by anyone and everyone as a mere ornament, by non-Christians, anti-Christians and those who mock Christianity by their lifestyles. We who are Christians should bear the sacred character of the Cross ever in mind; and if we wear it, we should do so with pride and humility, as a badge and witness to our inner faith.
As usual, Saint Paul said it perfectly, when he wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians that “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”, an utterance that finds its echo in the hymn “In the cross of Christ I glory”.