A while ago, I posted a blog about the origins of the sign of the Cross here. The post was fairly innocuous — a few quotations from the Fathers about making the sign of the Cross and the power that the Cross has over demons with another from Martin Luther thrown in for good measure (if Protestants don’t trust the Fathers, they might trust Luther). At the close, I remarked upon the lack of popularity the sign of the Cross has with Protestants.
The version imported to Facebook received the following comment:
It has likely lost favour with Protestants because the act of signing yourself with the cross has no biblical basis. Venerating wooden crosses and believing that the sign of the cross holds ‘magic power’ is dishonouring to Christ. It is by the shedding of Christ’s blood that we are saved, by his death and resurrection that the penalty for our sins is paid – it is not by the piece of wood that Christ was nailed to. The cross as an object holds no power and to worship it is idolatry. We should look to Jesus, the person, not to the object upon which he was killed.
When done properly, veneration of the Cross operates in a manner similar to all symbolic action, even more similar to the use of icons (but Protestants aren’t often fond of those, either).* When I look upon a cross, or make the shape of one over my body, I am not thinking, “This t-shape will save me,” or “That piece of wood/bronze/silver/stone is worthy of my worship.” Rather, the Cross becomes a window to a great spiritual truth. It is a vehicle for the imagination and the reason and emotions to be drawn back through history to the great moment of Time when the timeless, deathless One entered Time and died.
A cross is a kind of recapitulation of the one, unrepeatable historical event of the Crucifixion of the King of Glory. The death of Christ my God is made real to me as I contemplate the Cross. The benefits of his passion are brought to me as I behold the crossed bits of wood hanging in my prayer area, the ornamented fragment of silver I wear around my neck, the shining brass at so many Anglican churches, the stained glass at St. Alban’s in Ottawa.
These benefits are not made real simply by the presence of a piece of wood, but through receiving the benefits of the historical Crucifixion through the contemplation of the object before me by faith in Christ our God. Faith is the key ingredient, and that Faith lies in the One Who hung and died, the One Who loves me most.
It strikes me as a natural event that Christian worship would include veneration of the Cross, art of the Crucifixion, Crucifixes on necks and walls, bare crosses on necks and walls, films of the Passion, plays of the Passion, poetry about the Cross, and what ultimately could be called the “cult” of the Cross.
Given what I’ve said above, I do not believe that a cult (cultus) of the Cross is a bad thing. Kissing crosses, parading crosses, meditating with crosses, kneeling before crosses, prayers recalling the Cross — these are not bad things. They are a reminder not of a piece of wood that may or may not have been found by St. Helena in the fourth century but of the salvation of the world wrought upon one such Cross by our Saviour and Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“All this is well and good,” you may say, thoroughly unconvinced, no doubt. “What about the Bible?” We’ll get to that next time.
*Amusing slip of the tongue from a friend referring to the statue of St. Alban the Martyr of which I am fond, “So, you really like the idols, don’t you?”