WHY DO CATHOLICS... use the symbol of the Cross in their churches and homes?
By Paul Stenhouse, MSC PhD
ANNALS IS HAPPY to offer readers a new
series of 'Why do Catholics...?' Following on the popularity of our
last series that ran for some years, and is now available in
booklet form [see p.14] we have selected twelve (12) topics from
among those suggested by readers. We hope to continue this new
series in Annals for some years. We welcome readers'
comments on the topics chosen and our treatment of them.
THESE DAYS, the potentially lethal viruses of
gimmickry and subjectivism contaminate much of what
passes for religious or theological writing. A short piece entitled
'The Triumph of the Cross,' appeared in the September issue of
Crisis. The author, an associate pastor of a Catholic parish in
Washington, with two doctorates, introduces his topic with the
statement that 'it took the Church four hundred years to use the
cross as her primary symbol'. He also confuses the 'cross' and the
One expects this kind of fuzzy thinking from the
likes of Jimmy Swaggert or 'Christian Equippers International'. The
latter flood the Internet with anti-Catholic rubbish that clogs up
telephone lines and people's minds. Taking their cue from anti-Catholic polemicists like Lorraine Boettner they claim, among
myriad other absurdities, that 'making the sign of the cross' never
began among Christians until 300AD.
The easily verifiable truth is that the sign of
the cross, especially when used as part of the monogram of Christ,
(the first two letters of the name of Christ, XP, with the X
intersected by the P in the centre: associated with the Holy Name
Society) is to be found as the most common and characteristic
symbol of Christianity from the earliest days of the Church.
Myriad crosses were cut into the tufa walls, the
grave niches and the chapels of the Roman catacombs from the end of
the first century. These bear witness to the love that the first
Christians bore for this image of Christ's victory over death.
They found spiritual strength as they prepared
for their own martyrdom, in the image of the cross upon which Jesus
died for our sins, despite torturers, hostile magistrates, and
savage beasts. In reality, tens of thousands of those who gave
their lives for love of him, died an excruciating death on a cross
like their Lord.
The image of the cross, especially when used in
conjunction with the monogram of Christ, was a two-fold symbol: of
the name and person of the Lord Jesus; and of His sacrifice and
Misunderstanding the role of the
NEED FOR CAUTION
THE BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
WHEN no authority is recognised in matters
biblical, the taste, judgement and dare we say, prejudice of the
translators can run free. Take, for example, Isa. ii, 6 and compare
its rendering in two modern translations, the Revised Standard
Version and the New English Bible. The former has:
'For thou has rejected thy people, the
house of Jacob,
because they are full of diviners from the east
and of soothsayers like the Philistines,
and they strike hands with
The latter has:
'Thou hast abandoned
thy people the house of Jacob;
for they are crowded with traders
and barbarians like the Philistines,
and with the children of foreigners
Not without reason has the Catholic Church
insisted that translations be subjected to scrutiny. Ed.
For almost three hundred years the meaning of
this symbolism was lost on many of the ill-educated pagans, many of
whom would have been aware that the Jesus whom Christians
worshipped died the death of a criminal, and would have found the
cross of Christ a shameful image.
The sign of the cross was so evident a
part of Christian life in those early centuries, that some
non-Christians, in their ignorance, accused Christians of
worshipping the cross as if it were an idol.
Tertullian (160-220 AD) answered this
accusation,1 as did the second century work
Octavius, by the Christian writer Minucius Felix, whom some
think Tertullian followed.
Octavius contains taunts by the pagan
Caecilius that 'a cross is something you suffer death on, not
something you adore,2 to which Octavius the Christian
replies, 'we neither worship crosses, nor do we look for death upon
The extent of the devotion of ordinary Catholics
to the cross of Christ in the second century may be gauged from the
following statement of Tertullian, 160-220 AD:
"In all our travelling and going about; as we come in
or go out; as we put on our shoes, or are at the bath, or at the
table, in lighting our candles, in our lying down or sitting down;
no matter what we are occupied in doing, we make the sign of the
cross on our foreheads'.4
Minucius Felix, the second century author
referred to above, describes to the pagan critic how Christians see
the cross everywhere: "We see the sign of the cross naturally, in a
ship borne along with bellying sails; we see it when a ship glides
forwards with outstretched oars; we see it when a pure-hearted man
worships God with extended hands'.5
Origen, 185-264 AD, describes the cross as 'the
sign that is made by Christians upon their foreheads; for all the
faithful make the sign before commencing any undertaking,
especially when beginning to pray, or to read the holy
Freedom to reverence the
'MIRROR MIRROR ON THE
QUITE likely a still stream was the first
mirror looked into by our astonished ancestors. But before long
metals and stones that were capable of being finely polished acted
as mirrors. The books of Job (37, 18) and Exodus (38, 8) mention
mirrors made of metal, and we know that up until the time when
glass mirrors came to be constructed, metal mirrors were used as
ornaments and artists vied with one another in the production of
these useful articles. Sadly few detailed descriptions have come
down to us of the manufacture of such mirrors, and with the
introduction of the cheaper and more accessible glass for this
purpose, the art was lost. It was only when designers of telescopes
started looking to metal for mirrors that the art had to be
re-invented in order to find the correct mixture to provide the
most perfect lustre.
In ancient times silver was used in the
manufacture of the majority of mirrors, not because it was the most
expensive but because silver was the most durable of the then
available unmixed metals for such use. Pliny (lib. xxxiv, c. 17)
ridiculing the extravagance of the times, says that every young
woman in his time had to have a silver mirror. And St John
Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, describes 'maidservants
constantly enquiring of the silversmiths when their mistress's
mirror will be ready.' (Serm. xvii). An Etruscan mirror was found
to be made of 68% copper, 24% tin and 8% lead.
Constantine was victorious against Maxentius -
after his famous vision of the monogram of Christ with the words
in hoc signo vincis ('conquer with this sign') in the
evening of October 26, 312 AD before the battle at the Milvian
Bridge. The Edict of Milan in 313 AD granted freedom for Catholics
to profess their faith openly, and for the first time granted them
universal tolerance. Constantine directed that 'for the Catholics
in particular all meeting places which belonged to them and have
since been bought by or granted to others, are to be
The new emperor who favoured Christianity built
numerous churches in Rome - the basilica of St Peter on the Vatican
hill where Constantine placed a golden cross on St Peter's tomb,
and the basilica of St Paul outside the walls, where St Paul is
buried; he also founded the basilica of St John in Laterano, the
pope's own church, and the basilica of St Agnes on the via
Nomentana. In all of them he erected crosses. The basilicas were
all built in the shape of a cross.
Afterwards, when he transferred his capital to
Byzantium, later known as Constantinople, he erected large crosses
on the Hippodrome and elsewhere in Constantinople, and put the
cross or the monogram on the arms and shields of his soldiers, and
on his imperial standards.
The famous mosaic cross, still viewed in
wonderment by millions of pilgrims who visit the Basilica of St
John Lateran in Rome, dates from the time of the same Christian
It is a plain cross, with a medallion of the
baptism of Jesus at its intersection. The Holy Spirit represented
as a dove hovers above it. The waters of baptism flow from the foot
of the cross, becoming the source of the four Asiatic rivers that
according to legend watered the Garden of Eden: Gihon, Pison,
Tigris and Euphrates.
Behind the rivers is God's Holy City, guarded by
the archangel Michael. Behind him is a palm tree, and on top of it
a Phoenix, representing the risen Christ. Two stags below the
cross, near the water, represent the nations seeking baptism, and
three sheep, on each side of the water represented, as usual, the
Jewish and the gentile Christians.
Julian the Apostate attacks the
Crosses were so commonly employed by Christians
in decorating their homes and churches that, when the persecutions
ceased, the emperor known as Julian the Apostate' (332- 363 AD)
nephew of the emperor Constantine the Great, who sought to
re-instate paganism and destroy Christianity, accused them of being
Followers of Christ, Julian complained, refused
to worship the Sacred oval-shaped brass Shield called the
Ancile,8 that was commonly believed to have
fallen from heaven and upon which the security of Rome was thought
to depend, and they worshipped the wooden cross, continually made
the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and engraved the cross
over their homes and churches.9
In reply to this misrepresentation, St Cyril of
Alexandria (died 444 AD) denied that Christians worship the
cross. He said that they reverence it because it reminds them that
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, set aside his Divine Majesty,
and left His Father's throne and took upon himself the form of a
servant, the likeness of a man, and suffered the cruel and shameful
death on the cross.
The sight of the cross, Cyril said, reminds
Christians of these truths, and teaches them that Jesus died that
they might live. That is why they value the symbol of the cross,
and are grateful to God because of it.10
It was common for crosses to be ornamented with
flowers, or wreaths of victory, or crowns. St Paulinus (353-451 AD)
bishop of Nola, not far from Capua in Italy, had the following
inscription put under the cross above the entrance to his
'Ceme coronatam Domini super
Stare crucem, duro spondentem celsa labore
Praemia. 'Tolle crucem is vis auferre
which I translate as follows:
'See above the entrance gate the crowned
cross of Christ the Lord;
To those who pay the heavy price, it promises a high reward,
If you would bear away the crown, carry the cross and not the
A fourth century Christian poet in Aquitaine in
France, Severus Sanctus Endelechius, describes how a Christian
shepherd used to protect his flock from disease by painting a cross
between their horns. He describes the mark as the sign of the cross
the Christ, the only God who is worshipped in the great
'This sign conquers'
Count Melchior de Vogué gives a beautiful
account of the well-preserved remains of four ancient Christian
towns on the east bank of the Oronte river, between Antioch and
Aleppo. They appear to have been abandoned at the time of the
Muslim invasions of Lebanon and Syria between 636 and 640 AD. They
contain many ancient crosses.
'To visit them,' writes de Vogué, 'is to go
back in time to a Christian society no longer living the life of
the catacombs - humiliated, timid and suffering - but open,
prosperous and artistic... There are crosses and monograms of
Christ sculpted in relief on most of the gates: and from the style
of the inscriptions it appears that they were from around the time
of the emancipation of the Church (in 313 AD). There is a
graffito of an unknown painter, decorating a tomb, and
evidently wanting to try out his paintbrush, doodling on the rock
and painting monograms of Christ. In the enthusiasm of his
new-found freedom, he paraphrased the inscription that the emperor
Constantine ordered to be put on the standards of the Roman
legions: This sign conquers".13
The early Christians would have made St Paul
proud. 'God forbid,' the saint of the Gentiles wrote to the
Christians of Galatia, 'that I should glory in anything other than
the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ'.14
- Apol. xvi; and ad Nationes i,12.
- op. cit. xii.
- ibid, xxix
- de Cor. Mil. iii.
- Octavius, 1672 edit. p.287.
- Select. in Ezech. ix.
- 'Epist. to Anulinus', proconsul for Africa. See Eusebuius,
Hist. Eccles. x, 5, 15.
- Mamurius made eleven copies at the request of king Numa (died
672BC) to confuse thieves who might try to steal it.
- See St Cyril of Alexandria's Contra Iulianum, vi.
- ibid. The above summary has been taken from the
non-Catholic Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, Hartford
1880, vol.i. p.499.
- Molanus (1533-1585) de Imaginibus c.v 'de Picturis'. His
real name was J. ver Meulen; he was a Flemish Catholic writer.
- quoted ibid. p.496.
- Revenue Archeologique, vii, p.201.
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