Externals of the Catholic Church – The Cross and the Crucifix

The cross is one of the most important of Christian emblems. It is the distinguishing mark of every edifice that is set apart for Catholic worship, education and charity. Bearing the image of our crucified Saviour, it stands upon the altar on which the Sacrifice of Calvary is continued throughout the ages; because He ennobled and sanctified it when He died on it for the salvation of mankind.

It may be well to state that there is a difference between a cross and a crucifix. A cross is a crucifix only when it bears the image of our Lord’s sacred Body. A cross without an image is simply a cross; a cross with an image is a crucifix.

The Cross Among Pagans

Among many nations the cross was in use for the execution of criminals. The most ancient practice was to hang the condemned person on a tree, either by nails or ropes; and this led to the employing of two pieces of timber for the same purpose. Our Blessed Redeemer was put to death in the cruel manner that was customary among the Romans for the execution of slaves and degraded criminals – namely, by being fastened to the cross with large nails driven through the hands and feet, the arms being extended on the transverse beam of the cross. The barbarity of scourging before the crucifixion, and the compelling of the condemned sufferer to carry his cross were all in keeping with the cruel Roman character.

It is remarkable that the cross, although an instrument of torture, was held in religious honor among pagan nations and was regarded as possessing extraordinary sanctity. The most ancient form was the “swastika,” emblematic of the revolutions of the sun and consequently a symbol of life. In Egypt and Assyria the cross typified creative power, and many of Ansated the pictures and statues of the gods of those countries Egyptian represent them carrying in their hands the “crux ansata,” or cross with a handle, which was possibly a symbol of the productive powers of Nature.

The Buddhist sects of India regarded the cross as an emblem of immortality, a sign of the life to come. The early explorers of Mexico and Peru found numerous crosses among the carvings in the heathen temples of those newly-discovered lands. The crosses found in these pagan regions are all modifications of the symbol referred to above, emblematic of Nature and her forces. Although there is no real connection between these pagan crosses and the sacred Christian symbol, it is curious that among these heathen the same sign should typify earthly life which among Christians denotes spiritual and eternal life.

When Christianity had spread throughout the Roman world, the cross became everywhere an emblem of faith, an object of religious veneration, and one of the most common ornaments. The Church made both the cross and the crucifix sacramentals, by establishing formulas for blessing them – thus setting them apart as objects intended to inspire us with faith and devotion.

The True Cross

What became of the cross on which our Saviour died? The legend of the Finding of the True Cross is of great antiquity, and the event is commemorated by the Church on the third of May. The details may possibly have been added to in later ages, but the important facts rest on very good authority, namely, that of Saints Ambrose, Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem.

The story is as follows: The pious Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, in the year 326 made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She was then seventy-nine years of age. When she reached the Holy City she caused excavations to be made on Mount Calvary, and at a considerable depth found three crosses, and, lying apart, the tablet bearing the inscription placed by Pilate’s command on the cross of Christ. There seemed to be no means of knowing the cross on which our Saviour died; but at the suggestion of Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, the three crosses were applied in turn to a sick woman, and at the touch of one of them she was immediately and miraculously cured.

The upright beam of the cross was kept in Jerusalem, and the other was carried to Constantinople; and a large portion of this was afterwards sent to Rome, where it was preserved in the Church of Santa Croce. Tradition states that the portion left at Constantinople was taken to Paris in the thirteenth century, by Saint Louis, king of France. The part left at Jerusalem was carried away by the Persians under Chosroes II, after they had captured that city. It was recovered by the Emperor Heraclius in 628, but only nine years later the Saracens took Jerusalem, and since that time there is no further mention of that portion of the True Cross.

The Nails

There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether three or four nails were used in the crucifixion of our Blessed Saviour. Various representations show sometimes two nails in His feet, sometimes only one. In certain pictures the feet are supported on a block of wood, a “suppedaneum,” or foot-rest. It is chiefly in the later pictures that the feet of our Lord are shown crossed and fastened with one nail.

These nails have a legendary history of their own. One is said to have been cast into the Adriatic Sea by the Empress Helena when she was returning from Palestine, whereby a storm was quelled that had menaced the ship with destruction. A second nail was placed among the jewels of the royal crown of Constantine; another is said to be preserved in the cathedral of Milan, and a fourth at Treves.

It is hardly necessary to say, that these and many other poetic legends concerning holy things and persons are not articles of faith. We may believe them; we are not obliged to do so. They may be wholly or partly true, or they may be wholly or partly the product of the fervid imagination of some medieval romancer. We recognize their beauty, but we do not thereby oblige ourselves to believe them.

It is possible, however, that many of the “fragments of the True Cross” which are preserved and venerated in various places are genuine, as its discovery is probably a historical event, being fairly well authenticated, and it is likely that so great a relic would be kept and guarded with considerable care.

Some Varieties of Crosses

The form of crosses has been modified in different countries, and there are several distinct varieties. In some places the cross used for executions was in the form of the letter T – sometimes called the Tau cross, from the Greek letter. The ordinary cross, such as is generally shown in representations of our Saviour’s crucifixion is the “crux capitata,” or headed cross, also known as a Latin cross, and tradition tells us that this was the form used on that momentous occasion. When the four limbs of the cross are of equal length we have a Greek cross, so called because it was largely used in medieval Greek architecture. A cross in the form of the letter X is known as Saint Andrew’s, that Apostle having been crucified on one of that description. A cross with four equal limbs of spreading or triangular form is a Maltese cross, so called because it was the badge of the military and religious order of the Knights of Malta. If the arms of a cross are connected by a circle it forms the well-known Celtic cross, of which many ancient specimens may be seen in Ireland. A cross with two cross-bars is variously known as an archiepiscopal or patriarchal cross, because it is used in the heraldic arms of these higher prelates. There are also other variations, due to the ingenuity of artists and architects.

The Cross in Christian Art

Throughout the Celtic w hole range of religious art, particularly in the Middle Ages, the cross has exercised a most powerful influence. The ground upon which the grandest churches were erected was made to assume a cross-shaped form, so that the very walls from their foundations upward might show that sacred sign. Crosses, exhibiting an endless variety of form and ornament, surmounted the lofty spires and gables of cathedrals and churches, and were used profusely for the interior adornment of these temples of God.

When Protestantism arose, the fury of its leaders was often-times directed against the crosses which they regarded as a symbol of Popery, and they accordingly tore them down from the Catholic chuithes which they seized and devoted to their own worship – placing over them, instead, a weather-vane, fitting emblem of that inconstancy and uncertainty which are “blown about with every wind of doctrine.” In recent years a better spirit is manifesting itself towards the sacred symbol of our salvation, and crosses are appearing on and in some Protestant churches.

But among Catholics the cross has always been held in honor. It appears on the lofty gable of the church and on the summit of the tapering spire rising far into the sky, as if to announce to all that “this is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.” Crosses are cut into the masonry and corner-stone to attest the consecration of the edifice to Christian worship. They are graven in the altar-stone, five in number, to symbolize the five wounds of our Blessed Lord, to bear witness to the sacrificial purpose to which the altar is dedicated. They are placed over the tombs of all, noble and lowly, to proclaim that each of the dead has died in the faith of Christ.

The Crucifix

The representation of our Saviour nailed to the cross is one of the important sacramentals of our holy religion. The Church requires the crucifix to be placed over the altar where Mass is to be offered, and during the Holy Sacrifice the priest bows his head toward it several times. It is also used in solemn ceremonies in the form of a processional cross, being carried at the head of the line of the clergy. As explained elsewhere in the account of the ceremonies of Holy Week, the crucifixes in our churches are veiled from Passion Sunday to Good Friday as a sign of sorrow; and after the unveiling the clergy and laity devoutly kiss the feet of our Blessed Lord, to express their gratitude for His infinite mercy and love.

The faithful are urged to keep prominently before them in their homes the figure of their crucified Lord, and the same blessed symbol is generally attached to the rosary which every fervent Catholic possesses and uses.

A very special indulgence has been granted to all who, after a worthy Communion, recite on their knees before a crucifix or a picture of our crucified Lord the prayer beginning “O good and most sweet Jesus, before Thy face I kneel,” which may be found in prayer-books of recent date. This is a plenary indulgence, applicable to the souls in Purgatory, and is about the easiest to obtain of all those granted by the Church.

Above the head of the figure of our Saviour a scroll or board is attached to every crucifix, bearing the letters I. N. R. I. This is called the “title,” and represents the inscription affixed to the cross of our Lord by order of Pilate. What is the meaning of the letters? They are the initials of the words “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum” – “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Sometimes a skull and bones are shown at the bottom – the Hebrew name of Calvary (Golgotha) meaning “the place of the skull,” probably because it was a burial-ground for those who were put to death there.