At an early time in the ancient world, the two intersecting lines that form a cross became a symbol of the sun, of fire and of life. The most common crosses in pre-Christian cultures were the crux gammata (or swastika), a symbol of good fortune, the crux commissa (the Tau cross) and the crux ansata (the Ankh).
“The everlasting God has in his wisdom foreseen from eternity, the cross he now presents to you as a gift from his innermost heart. This cross he now sends you he has considered with his all-knowing eyes, understood with his divine mind, tested with his wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with his own hands to see that it not be one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with his holy name, anointed it with his grace, perfumed it with his consolation, and taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then has sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all merciful love of God.”
— St. Francis de Sales
By the first-century A.D., however, the cross was recognized across the whole of the Roman Empire not as a symbol of life but as an instrument of death, used by the Romans as one of the cruelest forms of execution for criminals, slaves and enemies of the state — crucifixion.
For the Christians, the cross served as a precious sign of Christ’s redemptive suffering. St. Paul, for example, wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20). The open veneration of Christ’s cross by the early Christians, of course, was dangerous during the persecutions, which explains the absence of surviving monuments and decorations. Where the cross was used, it was often disguised, sometimes in the form of an anchor, or early Christians adopted other symbols, including the Good Shepherd.
Still, Tertullian in the third century referred to the Christian community as “followers of the Cross” and famously wrote, “In all our travels and movements, in all our comings and goings, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down … we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De Corona militis, Chapter 3).
Embracing the cross
|St. Helena and the True Cross|
Tradition states that in A.D. 326, St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovered the True Cross during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which she also founded the churches of the Nativity, Ascension and Holy Sepulcher. She returned to Rome with a portion of the cross, where it was enshrined in what is now the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, while the rest remained in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Portions of the cross subsequently made their way around the world, and some are still venerated today.
Revered as an important relic, the True Cross was the stated object of at least two military campaigns, that of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century and the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
A relic of the True Cross is the only relic that can be carried under a canopy in procession, and it is the only relic that receives a genuflection when exposed.
The wider use of the cross in art began in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine the Great brought an end to the persecutions and placed the Chi-rho, the crucifixion monogram, upon the standards, shields and coins of the empire. The discovery of the True Cross in 326 in Jerusalem by his mother, St. Helena, also spurred the artistic embrace of the cross across the imperial world.
One of the earliest known surviving representations of the cross in Christian art is found in the fifth-century church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome in an apse mosaic. The crucifix, meanwhile, was not used in early Christian art until the late fourth century. Two of the oldest surviving crucifixes both date to the early fifth century: a crucifix carved onto an ivory casket and preserved in the British Museum; and a striking relief carved onto the wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.
The basic truth of the cross remains for Christians, regardless of the century. As Pope Benedict XVI taught during World Youth Day in Madrid last August, “The Cross was not a sign of failure, but an expression of self-giving in love that extends even to the supreme sacrifice of one’s life. … The Cross, by its shape and its meaning, represents this love of both the Father and the Son for men. Here we recognize the icon of supreme love, which teaches us to love what God loves and in the way that he loves: this is the Good News that gives hope to the world.”
Matthew Bunson is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine and general editor of the Catholic Almanac (OSV, $32.95).