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The Cross and Christianity

Updated on June 21, 2011

Why the Cross?

For people raised in another religion, it can be difficult to understand why Christians are so very fond of the image of the cross. After all, the Christian savior was tortured and executed upon it. The Romans considered it a humiliating way to die--a death reserved for rebellious slaves and thieves. Why would a Christian want to have a symbol of pain and suffering represent his religion?

Cross vs. Crucifix

What is the difference between a cross and a crucifix? A cross is merely the visual representation of the implement upon which a Christian martyr (Jesus, as well as some saints) was executed. A crucifix is the image of Christ (but no one else) hanging from a cross.

The Symbolism of the Cross

In order to understand the cross, you must first understand some of the basic tenets of Christianity, and how those beliefs support the use of the cross as a symbol of faith, and even hope.

Christ Was a Sacrifice

Prior to the coming of Christ, Jews offered animal sacrifices to God. Jews who converted to Christianity (and later non-Jews) held that Christ was the ultimate, human sacrifice, and that no more animal sacrifices were necessary.

In the Jewish faith of the time, animal sacrifices were necessary to keep God happy and show that He was remembered and honored by His people. As far as I am aware, there was not a direct correlation between commit a sin and sacrifice an animal to atone for it, although that was part of the reason for sacrifices (sacrifices were also offered as thanksgiving).

Christians, however, draw a direct correlation between the sacrifice of Jesus and atoning for sins. Many modern Christians assert that Jesus died for their sins. If you believe that Jesus was the son of God and that he gave himself as a sacrifice, then you can reap the benefit of his sacrifice in that God will not hold your sins against you.

Things then become murky, depending on what type of Christianity you hold to, as some say that believing in Jesus (being "saved") is all that's required, while others say that you must be sorry for your sins too, and still others say that you must confess those sins to a person who has taken holy orders, and so on. Despite the arguments over the smaller details, all Christians do believe that Jesus was a sacrifice, and that through that act, people who follow his teachings are made better in the eyes of God.

So, in this instance, the cross is a symbol of redemption. By believing that Christ died on the cross to wash away the sins of mankind, you are redeemed in the eyes of God and will go to Heaven.

Christ Was a Willing Sacrifice

This is a slightly different view than the one that Christ was a human sacrifice. It is quite clear in Christian texts that Jesus knew in advance (probably through a vision from God) that he was going to be executed. And yet, he did not flee from Jerusalem and the reach of the government. He himself feels that his death is part of God’s plan, and so he willingly submits himself to what is to follow.

Emotionally and symbolically, there is a large difference between being killed by mean, repressive people and giving yourself up to be a willing sacrifice. To be a willing sacrifice is to be humble and to put other’s needs above your own. Jesus is seen as giving up his life so that others would be able to get into Heaven and have ever-lasting life.

In this context, the cross represents humility and self-sacrifice; it is a symbol of Christ’s love for all of mankind.

Martyrdom

Jesus, as well as many of his apostles and other Christian believers, died for what they believed in. In some ways, it was a fight for freedom of religion. It was quite possibly the first example of non-violent protests.

Despite laws in Roman at various times which outlawed Christianity, or at least required everyone to publicly acknowledge the Roman Gods (which Christians would not do), Christians continued to practice their religion in their homes and meet secretly together. They did not try to organize rebellions against the Roman government, and when caught, they did not fight or resist. They saw themselves as being willing sacrifices, as Jesus was.

The Romans were rather befuddled by this concept of martyrdom, as there was nothing like it in the Roman religious experience. They were also unsure as how to deal with people who were defying the law, and yet not trying to unseat the Roman government. They had crushed many rebellious factions over time, but never a faction that wasn’t actually rebellious. Like the British during Gandhi’s protests, they first reacted with violence. However, that just drew more supporters to the opposition, including some too rich and powerful to casually put to death. Eventually the Romans gave up trying to fight against them and just let them exist.

In this instance, displaying a cross openly shows your allegiance to the Christian faith. This is an important symbolic act for a religious group that was once fed to lions and crucified for their religious beliefs.

Religious Image

As Christianity evolved from Jewish roots, the early Christians were in a quandary about religious images. In the Roman world, religious images were everywhere; indeed, they were a necessary part of the religion. And as Jewish Christians began to convert non-Jews to Christianity, you had a growing segment of the group who did not come from a tradition barring images associated with God; in fact, having grown up in the Roman world, they couldn’t see why images were a bad thing at all. And yet, for many who clung to the Jewish roots of Christianity, it was clear as crystal in the Ten Commandment that “Thou shalt have no graven images.”

Enter the cross. The cross is not an image of God or of Christ, therefore it is not offensive to those who are against the use of images (icons). It is an image of the religion without being a graven image. You can thereby identify religious worship centers and fellow Christians by the one image that everyone can agree on using.

And as Christianity split into different factions, the style of cross displayed not only designated one a Christian, but what type of Christian. Just as heraldry later identified what family you belonged to (or even who you were in particular), the image of the cross evolved to show exactly what kind of Christian you were.

Religious Identity

In the earliest days of Christianity, it was still so closely linked with Judaism that it was not seen as a separate religion at all. In fact, Christ’s disciples argued among themselves as to whether or not they were reforming Judaism, or if they were something different. Paul firmly set the Christian church towards separation from the Jewish faith, but for many years Roman people couldn’t tell the difference between Christians and Jews (not that they were going to put forth much effort; after all, who’s interested in a conquered people’s weird monotheistic religion?).

The cross, therefore, was used as a symbol of religious identity. Christians used it, but Jews didn’t, so at least you could tell them apart by that.

To Touch the Hand of God

A lot of the cross’s prominence in Christianity may stem from the reported finding of a piece of the True Cross by St. Helena in the early 300’s. I believe that this was the first relic to be found, and was the start of a craze for relics that went throughout the middle ages and up until the Reformation. (Not to mention it may very well have sparked a craze for wearing and decorating with crosses.)

As the Bishop of Jerusalem has noted, Christ ascended bodily into Heaven, so there are no bones or other bits and pieces of him that can be revered. All that is left to the worshippers are things that he touched, such as the cross, the lance that pierced his side, his winding sheet (the Shroud of Turin), etc. To touch one of these things is as close as any living person will come to touching Jesus himself.

The True Cross is considered the most sacred of all of the relics in existence, and is always housed in a cross-shaped reliquary.

Why Crucifixion?

With the weight of the body mostly or entirely supported by the outstretched arms, muscles in the chest cavity are strained and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to operate the lungs. Death by crucifixion is actually a form of suffocation. Most people took the better part of the day to die, with some taking up to two days.

Christ's death was actually rather quick by normal crucifixion standards.

The Taking of the Cross

While I have shown several different symbolic interpretations of the cross, why an individual chooses to display one can be for any of those reasons, all of them, or for different reasons all together.

Bonus Explainer

Why the fish? The use of the fish as a symbol of Christianity dates back to its very beginnings. The acronym for "Jesus Christ, God's son, savior" in Greek is Icthus, meaning fish. While the letters themselves were sometimes written, at other times just the drawing of a fish was used.

At the time that the fish symbol was popular, Christianity was an underground sect. To be caught practicing Christianity was often a death sentence. So, as with any underground movement, there were code words, passwords and secret symbols. To the uninitiated, the fish symbol or the word "fish" written in Greek would mean nothing. But to Christians, whose teachings were full of fish symbolism (the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Christ's admonition to become "fishers of men"), it was meaningful.

The fish symbol and corresponding letters were ways of recognizing fellow practitioners (living and dead; the deceased sometimes put them on their tombs), of denoting safe houses, or of marking the way to secret meeting areas.

When Christianity went mainstream, the use of the fish as a Christian symbol largely died away; however, in the last 15 or so years, it has returned as a Christian symbol and is used interchangeably with the cross. Like the cross, it is not a graven image, meaning that it is useable by any Christian, which may be why it is very popular among American Protestants, who are largely against religious images.

Why the X? Interestingly enough, the fish symbol was largely replaced by the letter X in the middle ages. It likewise is a letter in the formation of Christ's name in Greek. Also, because it is two lines intersecting, it is viewed as a type of cross in its own right (indeed legend says that St. Andrew the Apostle was crucified on an X-shaped cross). The X became a symbol for Christ in the middle ages, and was sometimes used as an abbreviation of his name. "Xmas," for instance, is an abbreviation of Christmas that was invented in the middle ages. It should still be pronounced "Christmas" as the X is just shorthand for "Christ" (in the same way that you read "esq." as "esquire").

However, the X as a Christian symbol has fallen out of popularity in modern times and it seems that the fish symbol is back again to supplant it.

(Image is the chi rho iota page from the Book of Kells; the three letters XPI translate to Christos, or Christ, in Greek; in most other places, however, you will just see the chi and rho overlayed, although you sometimes also see the letters alpha and omega placed on either side of the combined letters.)

Do you know of any other symbolism with the cross? Please share.

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    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 7 years ago

      Interesting presentation. The cross is a great symbol...nicely done lens. I'm a Christian, a follower of Christ, I adhere to the true word of God, the Bible, and not to man made rules of a particular Christian church. God sent His Son to die in our place. He accepted Christ's sacrifice as payment in full for our sins, forgiveness is solely on the basis of our relationship with Jesus, not on our behavior. Because of our faith of Christ's completed work on the cross, we have been assured and receive His divine mercy...it's FREE and it's a CHOICE...

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 8 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Well done! Lensrolling to my Cling to the Cross and Sharing My Faith lenses.

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 9 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Well explained! One of my favorite hymns is The Old Rugged Cross. In it, it is called the emblem of suffering and shame. So for a believer to wear a cross is a reminder of the humility of our Lord and how we also should think and behave.

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