In the earliest days of Christianity, believers did not display the cross as a sign of their faith. The cross was the Roman implement for executing its worst criminals. The earliest Christians were well aware that the cross was a symbol in tension: humiliation of the manner of Jesus’ death and the triumph over sin which Jesus’ dying accomplished. In addition there was, what seemed to non-believers, the contradiction that a crucified man could also be God. And so, the earliest generations of Christians generally avoided depicting the body of Christ on the cross. Ironically, the oldest representation of the crucified Christ has been identified as a graffiti found on a wall in Rome in the second century C.E. In this blasphemous caricature, a pagan artist carved an outline of a man with a donkey’s head hanging on a cross. Another figure is paying homage and the caption reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Along with some other factors, divisions within Christianity over the nature of Jesus, the symbol of the cross was rarely seen in public until the fourth century.
During the period of persecution, Christians were fearful of being identified by their oppressors because of this symbol and of its sacrilege at the hands of nonbelievers. In private, however, the cross and even the crucifix were cherished and accepted articles of devotion. When peace came to the church, during the reign of Constantine (306-337 C.E.), crosses were no longer hidden. For the Christian emperor himself claimed to have had a vision of the cross before a key victory that led to his ascending the throne. Constantine abolished crucifixion as a means of execution. Soon, the cross was featured prominently in all public places.
Beginning in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. and continuing through the Middle Ages, in an effort to portray the glory and victory which resulted from Jesus’ death, crosses were made of precious metals (gold, silver) and heavily studded with jewels. To underscore its salvific character, the cross was represented as the tree of life (as per Genesis 1:9), entwined with vine-like branches bearing leaves and fruit. There is a mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome (ca. 1125 C.E.) featuring the cross as a living tree extending its tendrils in all directions to all people.
In the early Middle Ages, huge geometrical crosses were carved out of stone, some as high as 20 feet. Crosses sculpted with scenes of Jesus’ passion were predominant by the late Middle Ages. Eventually, the body of Jesus as the triumphant redeemer was featured on the cross, but not until the thirteenth century was Jesus’ suffering body realistically represented. Images of the crucified Christ replaced the jewels, and believers were confronted with a dual message regarding: (1) the travesty of human sin; and (2) the profundity of God’s love, even for sinners – and called to leave sin behind and be embraced in the open and waiting arms of the Savior.
As an expression of this basic tenet of Christian faith, we are called to embrace the cross and to be signed with it. As early as the second century C.E., Tertullian advised: “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and coming out, when we put on our clothes and shoes… in all the ordinary actions of everyday life, we trace the sign of the cross.” (de Cor. Mil. 3) The newborn and the dying, the young and the old, the sick and the sound, the good and the evil are blessed by this sign. Baptized into Christ and the community under the sign of the cross, believers are called to live their lives as witnesses to its message of salvation. We are people who receive the fruits of the Cross’ triumph.
During every Mass, just before the Gospel is proclaimed, we who will hear it, signify our openness to God’s Word by signing ourselves with the cross; on our forehead, that its power may illuminate our minds, on our lips, that we might proclaim its truth, and on our heart, that we might better understand and realize its challenges. By this sign we are being saved.