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The Significance of the Cross

The Cross is the symbol of the triumph of good. By His sufferings on the Cross our Lord Jesus Christ washed away the sins of mankind, conquered the devil, abolished death and opened the way to eternal life for man. The Cross bears witness to Godís infinite love for sinful mankind. But the Cross is much more than a symbol; it possesses spiritual power.

All the sacraments and rites of the Church are performed with the sign of the Cross: the sanctification of the water at Baptism; the conferral of the grace of the Holy Spirit at Chrismation; the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist, and so on. When a believer makes the sign of the Cross over himself, he draws down upon himself the life-giving power of the redemptive sufferings of the God-Man. The Cross of Christ sanctifies the air, the waters and all creation. The fallen spirits fear the Cross and flee from it as insects flee fire.

Christian veneration of the Cross goes back to the first century. By the second and third centuries the veneration of the Cross had become so widespread among Christians that pagans called them "cross-worshippers." We find representations of the Cross on ancient Christian monuments and in the catacombs.

The Emperor Constantine the Great, while he was still a pagan, received a revelation from heaven. Following it, he had the sign of the Cross placed on the standards of his army, and thanks to this he defeated an enemy of Christians, the Emperor Maxentius, who went into battle with a much larger army. Taking a lesson from the miraculous help he had received in the battle against Maxentius, the Emperor Constantine the Great extended protection to Christians. As a result, the Christian faith, once persecuted, quickly gained strength in the various lands of the Roman Empire. From that time on churches were decorated with crosses both inside and out.

At the Sacrament of Baptism, a cross is put around the neck of the newly-baptized person. This small cross is to be worn on the breast like a divine seal for protection from all evil.

The holy Fathers of the Church wrote much about the great power of the Cross of the Lord. In their interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures they saw foreshadowings of the Cross in many biblical events: the marking of the doorposts with the blood of the paschal lamb; the brass serpent which Moses set up in the desert; and the sealing of the righteous with a mystical sign upon their foreheads, as described in the book of the Prophet Ezekiel and in the Apocalypse (See Exod. 12:7-13; Num. 21: 8-9; Ezek. 9:4; Rev. 7:3, 9:4, 14:1). References to the veneration of the image of the holy Cross and the sign of the Cross by the early Christians may be found in the works of St Justin the Philosopher, Origen, St Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian and later writers.

One thing which sets Orthodox Christians apart from many of the heterodox is their use of the sign of the Cross. Not all use it equally well, however. Some make the sign of the Cross reverently, with faith, while others do so carelessly and hastily. It would be better to make the sign of the Cross less frequently than to do so very often but carelessly. To make the sign of the Cross properly the fingers of the right hand are brought together so that the ends of the first three fingers (the thumb, the index and middle fingers) are joined together, representing the Holy Trinity, while the remaining two fingers (the ring finger and the little finger) are folded into the palm of the hand, symbolizing the two natures, divine and human, of our Lord Jesus Christ. In making the sign of the Cross, we place the three joined fingers on the forehead, to sanctify the mind; on the belly, to sanctify our inmost feelings; and then on the right and left shoulders, to strengthen our spiritual and physical faculties.

We should make the sign of the Cross during our prayers, when we enter a church and when we kiss icons and other sacred objects. We should also make the sign of the Cross at all important moments in our lives, in danger and in grief. We should remember that the sign of Cross draws down upon us divine power and at the same time drives away all the evil influences which come from the demons.

A Note on the Russian Cross: In the Russian Church two bars are added to the ordinary four-pointed cross. The small upper bar represents the board which was nailed to Christís Cross, bearing the title "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." The lower, slanted bar on the Russian eight-pointed [i.e., three-barred] cross reminds us of the two thieves who were crucified with our Saviour, one on the right and one on the left. The thief who hung on the right repented of his sins, believed in the Lord and went to paradise; thus, one side of the bar points upward. The thief who hung on the left was filled with malice, blasphemed Christ and was lost; therefore, the other side of the bar points downward.

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