The history of the cross and its many meanings over the centuries


A procession of Christian girls, venerating the Cross, in the village of Qanat Bekish, Lebanon. PHOTO/AP/Hussein Malla

In the fall, Catholics and some other Christian churches celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross. With the feast, Christians commemorate Jesus Christ’s life, especially his salvific death on the cross and his later Resurrection, believing this offers them the promise of forgiveness and eternal life.

The feast has its roots in late antiquity, a time when the cross became an important part of Christian art and worship. The cross, once a shameful form of execution for criminals, has became a predominant symbol of Christ and Christianity.

However, the cross at times has also taken on darker meanings as a symbol of persecution, violence and even racism.

The early cross

As a scholar of medieval Christian history and worship, I have studied this complicated history.

Second century pagan graffito depicting a man worshipping a crucified donkey-headed figure.

A famous piece of early-third century Roman wall art, the “Alexamenos graffito,” depicts two human figures, with the head of a donkey, arms stretched out in a T-shaped cross, with the caption “Alexamenos worships his god.”

Christianity was outlawed at the time in the Roman Empire and criticized by some as a religion for fools. The caricature of “Alexamenos,” offering prayers to this crucified figure was a way of depicting Christ with a donkey’s head and ridiculing his god.

But for Christians, the cross had deep meaning. They understood Christ’s death on the cross to be “completed” by God’s raising him from the dead three days later. This Resurrection was a sign of Christ’s “victory” over sin and death.

Believers could share in this victory by being baptized, forgiven of past sin and “reborn” into a new life in the Christian community, the church. Christians, then, frequently referred to the Christ’s cross both as the “wood of life” and as a “victorious Cross.”

The true cross?

In the early fourth century, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. He authorized excavation of some of the holy sites of Christ’s life in what came to be called the “Holy Land.” At the time, it was part of the Roman province of Syria Palestina, bracketed by the Jordan River to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and Syria to the north.

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