Who We Are Palanca
Newsletter President
Secretariats Annual meeting
Archives Sp. Director
Locator Contact Us New Movement Links

"Symbolism and the Cross"

Bev Appleby

The theme for this year's gathering is "The Way of the Cross." The Way of the Cross is a way of life. The theology of this I'll leave to Peter and the rest of the clergy.

(Hold hair back from forehead, lean forward and ask...)

Do you see the sign of the cross on my forehead? No? It's there. I received it at my baptism as a symbol of who I am and whose I am.

(Bless self using the sign of the cross and explain...)

During communion this is the sign of the cross I use to acknowledge with whom I commune.

(Raise hand and make sign of the cross toward the audience, explaining... )

And this is the sign used when asking God's blessings for you and for others. These are invisible crosses. You can't see them, but they are there.

Tonight I'm going to present a few thoughts on the visible cross both as object and as symbol. The cross is the universally accepted symbol of the Christian faith and is recognized as such everywhere. The cross is so prominently displayed almost everywhere in our society that we hardly need to think about it or how precious it is to us. We can find it on steeples and know that it identifies a place of worship. We often see it in a home and we know a Christian family lives there. We see it on bumper stickers and we guess what its symbolism means to the driver. We assume people who are wearing crosses are professing Christianity, but we aren't always sure if it really means that to the wearer. We do know a true Christian wears a cross as a symbol of faith. An unbeliever wears it for costume jewelry. The wearer's true identity is revealed by that person's actions or we can ask the wearer about it. What a great opportunity for a dialogue and for witnessing! Thee seem to be crosses everywhere in sight. But that's not always true. There are times and places where there are none, where they are forbidden, and one has to use one's imagination to see any. Some such places are at the top of a ship's mast...or the tops of anchors...or telephone poles....use your imagination to find them. On an old building that I often pass there appears to be a large wooden cross attached to its side wall. Actually, it's just an old rusty pipe and supports that, from a distance, appears to be a solid wooden cross. It's not what it's made of, but what it looks like, what it represents and, what it reminds me of, that matters to me. Look around and see where you see them. They can be found everywhere even where the practice of Christianity is forbidden. Katherine Koob found hers while she was being held hostage during the 1980 Iranian crisis. The room in which Katherine was held captive had windows only near the top of the wall. She could see only sky and a part of the roof of the consulate building. On this visible part of the roof was an attached antenna with some configured cross bars, somewhat reminiscent of the old style TV antennas - the ones with long poles and looped crossbars. Near the bottom of that upright antenna on the consulate roof was a large orb that held some of the transmitting equipment. Kate saw these pieces together as forming an image of a huge cross penetrating the world. And so every morning and every evening Kate stood facing the window, looking up at that cross and said her devotions, fully believing that the "Christ of the Cross" was showing her that He will be with us in whatever our circumstances, and wherever we may be.

(Use canes to make visual signs along with this explanation.)

In form, the cross is simply two straight lines intersecting askew or at right angles. Askew they form an "X." This "X" symbol has many meanings. As an editing symbol it's used for crossing things out... like maybe our errors or our sins. At right angles the lines form a plus sign symbolizing something added. We can think of the crucifixion cross as a plus sign. If we take away the upright bar we are left with a single horizontal line... a minus sign... it denotes a negative situation. And the world was in a really negative condition when God had to finally reach down into the world with his lifeline. The intersecting lines form the shape of a cross... a plus sign... God used the cross to make a positive condition in the world. But at Christ's crucifixion the disciples saw nothing positive about the cross. Yet after the resurrection the cross became a positive sign to them and it was established as a symbol of their faith, and it is our symbol as we continue in that faith.

As an object, one use of the ancient cross was as an instrument of execution. As a symbol, the cross denotes Christ and represents the Christian faith. A symbol is often a representation of some object or an intangible supposition that is difficult to define. A symbol is a way of expressing its meaning. The meaning of the cross in our individual lives is only as we experience it. And as an experience it continues to influence and affect our life and the lives of people around us and the rest of the world. It is personal and collective. Personal as we individually meet Christ and collective as we group together in worship and praise.

Let's take a few minutes to look at the cross both as an object and as a symbol as it pertains to Christianity. As an object its use as a method of execution began long before the time of Christ. Many of the ancient civilizations..the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Carthaginians,..even the Greeks and the Romans used it. At first only one upright bar was used, a single stake drive into the ground. The victim was impaled upon it and left dangling there to die.

At a later time, nearer the time of Christ, a cross bar was added to the stake. Sometimes the bar was attached at the top of the stake forming the letter "T," in a shape we cal the Tau or St. Anthony cross. Sometimes the cross bar was attached further down on the stake forming the shape we call the Latin or the Roman cross. The victim was suspended in a vertical position dying a painful death. We believe Christ was crucified in this position on a Latin cross. In Mark 15:26 we read that a second cross bar with an inscription identifying Christ as the King of the Jews was nailed to the post above His head. It would have been impossible to nail that second piece onto a Tau cross. Legend, however, tells us that the two thieves crucified with Christ were hung on Tau crosses.

Several centuries after Christ's death a third bar was added to the lower part of the upright stake. This style of three barred shape is called the Eastern or St. Andrew's cross. On this cross the lower bar is attached askew. Eastern lore gives us several explanations. One explanation given for the slanted bar suggests that Christ's legs were of unequal lengths. Another explanation suggests that the bar was jostled into that position by the earthquake which rocked the area as Christ died. As this addition was not added until long after His death we have look to other explanations. One of them is that the bar was added in honor of St. Andrew who is credited with bringing Christianity to the East. It is said that St. Andrew was crucified upside down on an "X" shaped cross still preaching the gospel as he died.

There are ever so many legends about this cross of Christianity. One legend tries to connect wood taken from a tree in the Garden of Eden to the wood used for the cross. In that particular legend a branch from that tree was supposedly planted on Adam's grave where it continued to grow until King Solomon had it cut down for use in the building of his temple. But, for some reason, the wood wasn't used. As the legend continues the wood was next found lying at the bottom of the pool at Bethesda, a site of Biblical miracles. It is said to have remained there until the time of the crucifixion. Then it rose to the surface of the water. It was taken from there and made into the cross of the crucifixion.

No matter what the legend, the lore, or the mythology, it is not all important what shape or what kind of wood was used for the cross. What is absolutely crucial is to understand how God used this particular object. The power of the cross lies not in the cross itself, but in the supreme sacrifice made upon it. Throught it, Christ became the instrument of our salvation. It is the mystery of our faith. We all share in the mystery as we are called upon to take up our crosses and to follow Him. This call is for all people, for all time, everywhere, and in every circumstance. At the beginning He called to the disciples and today He calls to us.

On the road to Damascus he called to Paul, one who had been persecuting Him. We all know that story. Paul had been hunting for Christians and condemning them to death. But after his conversion Paul became one of the hunted and had to be hidden, often in the homes of felllow believers whom he had once pursued. These early Christians lived in great danger. In order to identify themselves to each other they drew the shape of a fish in the sand or revealed a small cross which they kept hidden in their clothing. They each understood the meaning of the symbol.

Despite the many dangers the Christian way of life began to spread... eastward into Asia and westward to Rome. The migrating Christians took with them their faith and their crosses with all of their symbolism. Persecution folowed them all along the way and they had to take many precautions to hide their identity and their worship. In many places Christianity was a forbidden religion. In Rome, the Christians, hidden safely in the Catacombs below the city, freely used the cross and other symbols to center their faith. They were an active, but hidden community. It wasn't until sometime in the 4th century, when the Emporor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the state religion, that the Christians were able to worship openly and the cross could be displayed in the open market places. Crosses were erected in full view and worn in plain sight. An enthusiastic St. Clement urged people to use their symbols everywhere, even on their household utensils. In archaeological digs evidence has been found of just how ell people listened to him. Symbols were found on cooking and eating utensils. And coins used during Constantine's rule were found showing him elevating a crosss. Constantine's edict opened the way for a rapid spread of the faith. The cross, as it is lifted high, shows a way of life that draws people to it. (We sing of that truth in the humn "Lift High the Cross.") Soon the crosses were being adorned with more and more elaborate decorations which often became associated with some Christian group, organization or country. We see them today and recognize the Celtic cross, the Jerusalem cross, the St. Andrew's cross. You can make your own lists. Each design had its own articular meaning and one has to understand the symbolism in order to understand the meaning.

One particular design is associated with the Pope. It's a long thin rod with three cross bars, each bar longer than the one above it. This design identifies the Pope's office and is supposed to be used only by him and, I believe, only where he is in residence. But a contractor not knowing the meaning of this style cross, placed one on the top of the steeple of a church he was building in Pennsylvania. And as far as I know, it's still there today. For centuries the common people weren't taught to read or write. Pictures and decorations were sed for instruction and inspiration. Church buildings became text books. The cross and other Christian symbols were chiseled, carved, and painted on the church structure, both inside and out, on the walls, on the ceiling beams and other available spaces. These visual dimensions were not only aesthetically pleasing they were for everyone's edification.

When the crusaders made their pilgrimages to the Holy Land they took the cross with them emblazoned on their shields and on their banners. This way they identified themselves and their mission. They also carred with them a large, solid cross called the Crusader's cross. The end of the lower arm on this cross was sharp and pointed. Symbolically it represents Christ passion on the cross. (In fact, there is a shape with all four extensions sharp and pointed that's called the Passion cross.) But the single point on the Crusader cross was used to serve a practical purpose. When the crusaders wished to worship, while traveling through lands where there were no churches, they took the pointed end of that cross, jabbed it into the ground and a place for worship was established. Their swords could also be used for the same purpose. By jabbing the sword point into the ground, it's cross shape made it a focus for individual devotions. As a group the crusaders hed those same cross-handled swords up high as they swore allegiance. (I suspect that's where we get the gesture of holding up our hand when we swear an oath. We're symbolically holding an invisible cross.)

The most elaborate designs and symbolism were added to the cross during the Renaissance Period. Examples can be seen in sculpture and paintings in museums and cathedrals throughout the world. During this same period many of the churches and cathedrals were constructed in the shape of a cross. At a distance the outline is quite obvious. You can observe the cross shape in the drawings and photographs of many English and European cathedrals. Inside those buildings the nave forms the lower end of the cross. The sanctuary forms the extension at the upper end. The cross bar is called the transepts. At the place where these two lines intersect three steps were raised. And above the steps was often placed an arched beam called the rood beam. This beam supported a crucifix. The nave area represented the Church Militant. The sanctuary area, the Church Triumphant. One couldn't move from nave to sanctuary without going under the cross. There's a lot of theology in this symbolism.

But the focus on increasingly elaborate decorative works led many to wonder just how far it would all go. Individuals began to protest. Groups were formed. Many of the protesters, taking literally God's first commandment not to "make" any graven images, interpreted it to mean all Christian symbols, including the cross. True, there is always the inherent danger that the symbol itself will become an object of worship. The first commandment warns us of that idolatry. To bless one's self by making the sign of the cross or to genuflect before the cross, to wear one may, to the uninformed, appear to be idolatry.

Every age has its protesters, some more violent than others. These protesters take it upon themselves to become the protectors of the Faith intending to keep it as pure as they perceive it, some through debate and others through violence. Martin Luther, hoping to debate his protests, nailed 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door.

Others, in what they considered righteous indignation, began a rampage of radical destruction. They removed the rood beams with the crucifix attached. They destroyed statues, marred the paintings, even going so far as to scrape some of the paintings off of the walls. They removed the crosses, completely destroyed many church buildings and selling the wood and stone to craftsmen and builders for them to use in everyday constructions.

In Ireland the protesters confiscated the personal crosses from the monks and priests forbidding them the use of any such symbols in their worship and devotions. But, with great ingenuity, the monks secretly fashioned new crosses out of a variety of available materials. They used brittle straw so they could quickly crumble the crosses if the need arose. They made more substantial crosses from clumps of peat cut from the bogs. The peat is dark in color. It hardens well and can be carved. Thus new creations could be easily fashioned. Many of those crosses were shaped with a very short cross bar. These side bars were deliberately made very narrow so they wouldn't entangle in the material as they were quickly slipped up a monk's garment sleeve when there was danger of being caught with the precious symbol. Perhaps they learned this lesson from the early Christians who had to keep their identifying symbols hidden upon themselves. Even today there are still areas of the world where Christians must still congregate in secret.

One year at church I asked members of the congregation if they would loan some of their personal or favorite crosses for a Lenten display. I asked them also to share any stories that went with them. Thee were many crosses of various designs and materials, some very simple, others more elaborately executed. There were ones received at confirmation, at a wedding, or passed down through a family, brought here by an immigrant. There was an amazing variety. But imagine my surprise when a woman brought in a large, elaborately designed metal cross with a Buddha, instead of Christ, attached to the center of it. She had bright it back from a tour in Japan. She explained that crosses similar to that one were used there during the days of persecution. Christians nailed them to the gateposts of their homes where passerby could see them. Other Christians recognized the cross, whereas the persecutors saw only the Buddha. One doesn't always see what is hidden in plain sight. We each see and experience the cross in our own individual ways as God gives us to see and experience it.

My earliest memory of the cross was of seeing it on the wall of my Italian grandmother's house. I was aware of how special it was to her and I was delighted when she gave me a small one of my own. But then I became confused by my mother's objections to my keeping or wearing it. In my father's catholic family they all wore crosses and displayed them in their homes. It is a part of their lifestyle. My mother's Protestant family's objections were based on what they believed to be superstitious idol worship. I was fascinated by this object which stirred such strong emotions in the people I loved. I didn't know what to think. I secretly carried the small cross in my slacks pocket. I would feel it, think about it and wonder.

As a small child I scribbled and doodled trying to make designs with special meanings. I had a great time imagining what they could mean and how to use them. But it wasn't until my first encounter with Christ that I began to seriously concentrate on Christian symbols and the cross.

As I was growing up I was envious of many others and I complained bitterly to God because I wasn't happy with my life. God never seem to hear me. Then one day as I was reciting the list of complaints to him over again, I suddenly had a vision. As I looked up I saw Christ's feet nailed to the bottom cross. I was there at the base of the base and I was surprised because I couldn't see all the way to the top of it. It extended so far up - way out of sight. As I wondered about this an arm extended down and held a gift wrapped package towards me. It was wrapped in white and tied with a red ribbon. And in that moment, without any words or sounds or anything, I knew in my heart that Christ was offering my life to me, just as it was, as it is. It was my choice to accept it or not.

From this experience I designed a symbol of God's offer of grace, a descending dove with a bow-tied package in its beak. My brother owns a factor and he made the symbol into little lapel pins for me.

One year my Pastor wondered if my brother could make something special for the congregation to wear during the Lenten season. But it was too close to Ash Wednesday to create anything new. We would have to choose something already available. We chose an Ankh cross. The Ankh cross looks like a Tau cross with a large loop on the top of it. The particular style we chose had splayed ends on the cross bar making the cross look something like the outline of an angel. Pastor placed all the crosses on the altar on Ash Wednesday and invited the congregation to come up and for each person to take one and wear it during the Lenten season as a symbol of their faith. We weren't too explicit about how they were to do this. Some people put it on as they dressed in the morning and took it off at the end of the day. Others wore it continually, as they slept and even in the shower never taking it off. Some were allergic to the metal and wore it even with the rash they developed. There was a defect in the mold when the crosses were cast and some of the crosses broke in two, but people continued to wear them that way for the season. One man in the congregation decided to research this design and found it was originally an ancient Egyptian fertility symbol. Fertility means life and the symbol resembles a cross. Perhaps that was why the early Coptic Christians in Egypt chose this symbol for use in identifying themselves to each other in their days of persecution just as the Japanese used a cryptic cross on their gateposts to identify themselves.

We got a lot of flak from some members of the congregation over the use of this particular symbol. Enough so that Pastor and I were really, really looking forward to Easter when we thought it would be the end of a very uncomfortable experience. But God, using this experience, had another plan in mind.

The following year people came to Pastor and asked what kind of disaster he was going to lay on them that year. So I designed a symbol for him and that was the beginning of what became a Lenten Symbol program. The program expanded yearly and included study programs and outreach projects. Other churches asked to use the symbols and use the programs. And every year Pastor would ask me to design a nail cross to use. And every year I kept telling him that it had been done so many times before that there was nothing more that could be made of it. But again God had something more to show me.

It happened one night at a group reunion when Steve Gridgada, who was working as a carpenter, shared that every time he pounded nails into wood he felt very close to our Lord. And when he said that, I heard the pounding sound of nails being driven into the wood. I saw Christ hanging on the cross way down the centuries... like a long corridor with all the centuries branching off it. I felt the concussion of those pounding nails in my chest. I wasn't expecting that, and asked God what it meant. Then I heard God respond that without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection and without the resurrection no Christianity. And that the pounding of the nails heralds the coming victory. When I heard the word herald I heard the trumpet sounds. And that was when I was given the design for the nail cross.

In this design the four arms of the cross are shaped like nails whose points meet together in the center of the cross where there is a solid circle. The circle represents a tombstone. Tombstones in the Holy Land were circular shaped and could be rolled in front of the crypt entrance. On the obverse side the nails become trumpets and the circle full of radiant lines representing the victory. Four words, each written on a trumpet remind us that God's Love gives us Peace and we walk in Faith and Hope. This cross, known by several names: the nail, or trumpet or hostage cross, was the Lenten Symbol the year of the Iranian crisis.

Katherine Koob, who was one of the hostages... I told you about her earlier in this talk ... Katherine was a friend of mine and knew of the Lenten symbol program. During the period of captivity, messages and articles were transferred to and from the captives through the diplomatic pouches. Among other things Katherine had asked for was a Bible and some other study books, but there was no proof or assurance that she or any of the other hostages were receiving any of the shipments. But nevertheless it was suggested that the symbol be included for her in one of the pouches. Several were included. On Easter Sunday of that year the Greek Orthodox Bishop and his assistant gave communion to the captives. (Let me tell you a little side story of that event that Kate shared with me after her release. She said they were lined up around the communion table and the Bishop gave the bread to each of them. As he went to place the bread on the table his assistant whispered to him that there were Lutherans there and they commune with both elements. The Bishop's followers commune with the bread only, not with the wine. But without missing a beat the Bishop set the bread down, picked up the wine cup, offering it as he continued to move around the group.) There were photographers there to record this special event and some of their pictures were published in Newsweek magazine. The cover picture showed Kate wearing the "Nail" cross. It was proof to the State Department that some things were getting through to the hostages. It was proof to Kate and the rest of us that there is no place that God cannot reach us nor is there any place that we cannot hold high the cross for Him.

It makes no difference what size, what design, what shape cross or what kind of cross we use to symbolize what God has done for us on it. What does matter is that there was a cross. Thanks be to God.

© 2010 National Lutheran Secretariat
Web Servant: Larry Conway