A cross with the representation of our Lord’s Body attached to it is called a crucifix, one without it is simply a cross. Both claim the Christian’s veneration and love because they are memorials of the true Cross and of Christ who died on it. Leontius, Bishop of Cyprus, thus explained, in the second of Nice, held in 787, the adoration paid to the cross and the crucifix: “He who receives an official document from the emperor venerates the seal, not because of the paper on which it is impressed, nor of the lead with which it is formed, but because of the emperor whose seal it is: in like manner we Christians, when adoring the figure of the cross, adore not the nature of wood, but the sign and the seal of Christ. Looking at it we salute and adore Him who was crucified on it. As children, when they see the staff or the chair or the robe of a beloved and absent father, kiss it with tears, through desire and veneration for their father; so we adore the cross as the staff of Christ,”
The Church exposes the crucifix, on Good Friday, to the public and solemn adoration of the faithful. Benedict XIV., influenced by the testimony of St. Paulinus of Nola, in a letter written to Severus, (the 31st in the collection of the Saint’s letters,) thinks that this ceremony originated in the rite of the Church of Jerusalem of exposing the true Cross to adoration on Good Friday. Those of the Western Churches which were not so happy as to have a portion of the sacred relic performed the ceremony with a common crucifix.
As long as the punishment of the cross continued frequent amongst the Pagans, the early Christians were careful not to show in public the image of the God-Man attached to what was still considered an infamous instrument of death; but they adorned the cross itself with precious stones in order that the sign of malediction might gradually become in the eyes of the new converts a sign of glory and of triumph. What better use could be made of earth’s jewels than in beautifying the sacred emblem of that Cross which was once gemmed with Precious Blood! Certain busy-bodies complained to St. Francis of Sales that a noble lady, who had placed herself under his spiritual direction, was guilty of great vanity in adorning with diamonds a golden cross that she wore. “What you call vanity,” said the mild and prudent saint, “edifies me much. Would that all the crosses in the world were adorned with diamonds and other precious stones!”
The crosses of the first ages had sometimes on their top the figure of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Ghost. A copious stream of water flowed from its beak, typifying the abundant grace diffused in our hearts by the Spirit of Love. On the right of the cross was the Blessed Virgin, on the left St. John the Evangelist, and at its foot was a lamb from the breast and feet of which flowed blood, thus symbolizing the True Lamb crucified for our sins. The head of the lamb was surmounted by a cross, and the blood issuing from its breast was received in a chalice. This manner of representing Jesus Christ was preserved until 680, when the third Council of Constantinople, held during the pontificate of Pope St. Agatha, ordered that for the future our Lord should be represented attached to the cross under the figure of a man.
Stags and lambs were sometimes depicted at the foot of the cross, eagerly drinking of the water which bubbled up on all sides. The stags represent the Gentiles who, by virtue of the cross, have been delivered from the darkness of idolatry and purified from their sins; the lambs are the faithful who come to draw from the sacred sign of salvation the graces which they need to preserve their purity and innocence. Nor was it rare to paint on the cross twelve doves, emblems of the twelve Apostles whom their Divine Master bid be wise as serpents and simple as doves (St. Matt. x. 16.) There were also crosses from the extremities of which crowns were suspended; hence they were called crowned crosses. These wreaths signify that to be crowned in heaven we must bear the cross on earth. The crown which was on the summit of the cross was upheld by a hand, symbol of the glorious victory which the Hand of the Risen Jesus gained, with the banner of the cross, by snatching the crown of empire from the pallid brow of Death. It was also an allusion to what was practiced amongst the Romans; another’s hand held suspended over the head of the conquering general, as he marched through Rome in stately triumph, the wreath of victory.
On most of the ancient crosses, when our Saviour is represented under a human shape, the figure is not in relief, but painted on the cross itself. Sometimes He is depicted not in an attitude of suffering and death but of triumph. Instances are not wanting in the Western Church of crucifixes which represent our Lord hanging to the cross entirely clothed.
Our holy ancestors in the faith had great respect and love for the image of Jesus Crucified, and in this they have been imitated by the peasantry of Catholic Europe. On the roadside and in the forest, in the valley and on the mountain, stands the cross of Christ, preaching its silent but eloquent sermon on the Passion, bringing tears from the eyes and prayers from the heart of the Christian traveller. The Vendeans, children of Catholic France’s most Catholic province, evinced in their heroic struggle against the God-despising French republic of the last century, a most touching devotion to the symbol of man’s redemption. When rushing like lions to the charge, if they espied on the road a cross or an image of Mary, the ranks simultaneously halted, as if checked by an invisible power. The peasant warriors fell on their knees and begged of Jesus crucified to bless their arms. Nor was their prayer in vain: they arose with a fire in their hearts that no danger could quench, with a strength in their arms that no enemy could resist. “Let them pray,” said their gallant leader Lescure, “they will fight all the better.”
The cross crowns the Catholic steeple, as a sign that Christ by His death on the cross, has joined heaven and earth, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. The crucifix must, by positive law of the Church, be on or over the altar during the celebration of the Holy Mass, to show us that that Sacred Rite is the unbloody renewal of Calvary’s bloody Sacrifice. The cross or the crucifix was, in Catholic States, the brightest gem in the monarch’s crown, and it was stamped on the coin of the currency.
We ought to make this holy sign ubiquitous. It should be in our houses, at our bedsides, around our necks. If we cannot reach the height of Christian perfection of bearing about Christ’s Passion in our bodies by practising great austerities, let us, at least, bear it on our bodies by having a crucifix about our persons. Let us put our Lord “as a seal on our hearts,” that He may grant us the precious grace of having those hearts like His.
Various indulgences have been granted by the Popes for good works performed in presence of the cross or crucifix, or when a person has one about him. These indulgences may be gained by being in a state of grace and renewing from time to time one’s intention of gaining them. Bouvier in his Treatise on Indulgences, says that crosses of paper card, wood, iron, lead or glass cannot be indulgenced, but only those of gold, silver, brass or other metal. “According to Benedict XIV. and the Elenchus of Pius VII., it is not required that the whole cross be of gold, silver, brass, etc. , but it suffices that the image of our Saviour be of some of these metals. An answer from Rome decides that indulgences may be attached to ivory images. Another answer of April 11, 1840, decides that the indulgence is attached only to the image of our Saviour; so that the figure may be transferred only from one cross to another without prejudice to the indulgence.” Only he for whom a cross, medal or rosary was blessed, or to whom it was given, can gain the indulgence.
The most common way of showing reverence to the cross is by making its sign on our persons, or blessing ourselves. This holy rite is an epitome of the whole Christian religion, because it is a declaration of our belief in the three great mysteries of faith, the Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption. The mention of three Divine Persons, in the formula of words which we use, is declaratory of the Trinity, whilst the figure of the cross sets forth our faith in Christ, the Man-God, dying for us.
There are two ways among Latin Catholics of making the sign of the cross. The first consists in touching the forehead with all the fingers of the right hand, then drawing the hand in a straight light to the breast, thence to the left, and from it to the right shoulder, pronouncing the words whilst we are performing this ceremony. Do not laugh, dear reader; we know how to make the sign of the cross, but do we always put that how into practice? We often make a flourish in the air with our fingers, but do We truly and reverently make on our bodies the representation of Christ’s cross?
By drawing the hand from the forehead to the heart we symbolize the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity descending from heaven and becoming Man in the breast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The passage of the hand from the left to the right shoulder shows forth how Christ has brought us from darkness to light, how He has merited for us a place on His right hand, on the judgment day, instead of leaving us on His left, where by our sins we deserved to be. Let us co-operate with His grace, and that blessed right hand station will be ours; there all our crosses will end.
The other way of making the holy sign, in use among us, and which the Church prescribes for her minister when reading the first and last Gospel at Mass, is to make, with the thumb of the right hand, a cross on the forehead, lips and breast. Thereby we profess to believe the truths of the Gospel, to be ready to confess them with our lips, and to love them in our hearts.
The Greek Christians bless themselves with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, and their cross terminates on the left shoulder. This manner was in use down to a very late period, even in the Latin Church. Pope Innocent III., in 1191, says: “The sign of the cross is to be made with three fingers, so that it may descend from top to bottom and then pass over from. right to left, … Some persons however draw the sign of the cross. from left to right” (De Mysteriis Missae, lib. II. c. xlv.)
The Jacobites, heretics who admit only one nature in Jesus Christ, make the sign of the cross with but one finger. The Nestorians, who hold that there are two persons in our Lord, whereas Catholic faith teaches that there is but one, use two fingers in signing themselves with the cross, and draw them from the right to the left shoulder to signify the victory of good over evil.
The custom of making the sign of cross is most ancient. Tertullian, who lived towards the end of second century, writes thus in his book De Corona Militis. “At every step and movement, whenever we come in or go out, when we dress and put on our shoes, at bath, at table, when lights are brought in, on lying or sitting down—whatever employment engages our attention, we make the sign of the cross upon our foreheads.”
The first christians used this holy sign to terrify the devils, and to shield themselves from all dangers of soul and body. It is related of the impious Emperor Julian, the Apostate, that upon a certain occasion when he went down into a cavern, in company with a famous magician, to go through the impure rites of pagan worship, he was dreadfully terrified by unholy voices and apparitions, Apostate though he was, he made the sign of the cross, and the demon army fled. But when he and his companion resumed their unlawful incantations, the devils came again, and again the sign of the cross drove them back to hell.
If ever there was a Saint against whom the Devil raged in all his fury, it was St. Anthony the Hermit, Phantoms the most hideous and unholy beset the servant of God, but never did the sign of the holy cross fail him in his need; it was to him a heavenly buckle warding off the fiery darts of the most wicked one.
With the sign of the cross St. Benedict broke a cup that was presented to him full of a poisoned liquid, and St. Hilarion drove back into its native boundaries a raging sea which an earthquake had precipitated on the land. Under the persecution of Diocletian, St. Tiburtius was brought before the imperial prefect, Fabian. The pagan judge ordered him to offer incense to the gods of Rome or walk on burning coals. The Saint made the holy sign on his forehead and then, in bare feet, passed unscathed over the glowing embers.
See what the cross did when used in a spirit of faith and love! We make its sign often enough, but not with reverence enough, not with faith enough. How many temptations would disappear, how many a sorrow of soul and body would be soothed, if the heart went travelling for an instant to heaven or to Calvary before the hand made the sign of Christ’s cross! You that have sick relative or friends, remember the power of the cross; keep it before the eyes of those suffering ones, offer it to the loving impress of their lips, and like the good Samaritan you will thus be pouring into their grieving spirits a balm whose sweetly-soothing power only the sick and the sorrowing can fully feel.
There is one devotion to the cross most appropriate for the holy time of Lent—that of the Way of the Cross, In it we accompany our sorrowing Jesus through all the stages of His Holy Passion, and the Church grants us as many indulgences for this devotion as we would gain by going on a pilgrimage to Palestine.