Sunday, April 3, 2016

Iconographic and Hymnological Portrayals of the Cross From an Orthodox Perspective

Iconographic and Hymnological Portrayals of the Cross
From an Orthodox Perspective

Dimitris Salapatas

            Today[1] I will give an iconographic and hymnological portrayal of the Cross as understood by the Orthodox Church. In order to achieve this we will look into the celebrations of the Cross as practiced within the Byzantine Tradition and the meaning of these events within the life of the Church.
            Why an iconographic and a hymnological approach to the Cross? These are the two elements most obvious when entering an Orthodox Church. Iconography embraces the whole or part of the interior of the Orthodox Church building. Therefore, iconography is considered the art of arts. Its beauty is unique, whereby it endeavours to depict Jesus Christ, His mother the Theotokos, the Saints, the Angels, the Prophets and whoever is in communion with God.
Iconography is the original tradition of Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since the early centuries of the life of the Church. In Orthodoxy, icons are known as windows into heaven, inspiring and uplifting the faithful. In many instances they have been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of mankind.
           Iconography is a form of art, following the artistic depiction of the Byzantine Tradition. However, it endeavours and accomplishes the unity between art and theology. Its objective is not just to decorate the interior, or in some cases also the exterior of the Church building, creating thus a pleasant atmosphere within the Church; but it also attempts to introduce the faithful to the transcendent place of worship. Iconography is, therefore, a theological narrative of the Divine Word; it is a means for redemption and salvation.
            On the other hand, hymnology is one of the key elements of the practice of the Orthodox Church, giving melodically the theology, the truths, the traditions and life of the Church to its faithful.  Music operates as a dramatic element, having a distinctive and dominant place in the overall structure of the liturgy; it has attained liturgical importance. The majority of the service is sung. Ecclesiastical music marries well with the liturgical poetry, pointing out the theology and doctrines of the Orthodox Church. Music in the Orthodox Church is understood as a means, as a road, through which the faithful are able to express their faith, devotion, gratitude, praise and hope towards God.  The language of Byzantine music is an eternal chant, by which our people come to a dialogue with God.
Upon entering an Orthodox Church, the faithful do the sign of the cross. When we kiss an icon[2] and when something or someone important is mentioned The Trinity, The Virgin Mary, Christ or even the Saint and event of the day, the faithful cross themselves. When we pray, as part of our practice, we cross ourselves. The cross, therefore, is not just something we see or venerate, it is something we actually do. This practice might not be evident in Scripture; however, the practice of crossing ourselves is evident in the Tradition of the Church for Orthodoxy’s faith and practice is based on Holy Scripture and Tradition. One cannot exist without the other.
‘The cross of Christ is indeed a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to the believing it is salvation and life eternal. St Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, claims:
‘Where is the wise man? Where the disputer? Where is the boasting of those who are called mighty? For the Son of God, who was begotten before time began, and established all things according to the will of the Father, He was conceived in the womb of Mary, according to the appointment of God, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost. For says (the Scripture), ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and He shall be called Immanuel’. He was born and was baptised by John, that He might ratify the institution committed to that prophet.’[3]
Our faith might sound wrong and illogical to those who do not believe; however, with faith, we are then able to comprehend the greatness and truth of God and of His salvation project for His Creation. 
            One of the things which were an established tradition within Church life, even at the dawn of Christianity, was the sign of the cross. Tertullian, a brilliant North African writer who lived between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, explains:
In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off our shoes, at the bath, at the table in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.[4]
‘It seems that the sign of the cross was such an entrenched element of Christian practice that a believer would not consider refraining from it. Tertullian believed it to be universal, and already ancient in AD 204.’[5] Tertullian was not the only one who examined the cross. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon also looked into this symbol. However, we do not know when specifically it was introduced within the life of the Church as an official practice. Nevertheless, we can understand that it was formed as an opposed practice towards the Roman world.

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 God’s infinite love for sinful mankind. But the Cross is much more than a symbol; it possesses spiritual power.
St Theodore the Studite explains:
‘How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.’[6]
            ‘In the days of the early church, Christians were fond of other symbols of recognition, similarly ritually charged, such as the famous symbol of the fish that, recently rediscovered, can be found pasted on many cars driven by Christians. Despite the ritual history of the fish, there is little visual symbolic power to it – it serves as a reminder of the acrostic Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour, which in [Ancient] Greek happens to spell “fish.” The fish was eventually surpassed by the cross as a visual symbol.’[7]
What is interesting about the cross is its simplicity. ‘A cross is how illiterate people sign a document, because it is the simplest recognizable sign they can draw, signifying their [acceptance] to an official form. And though the cross is perhaps one of the simplest things in Christian ritual, it clearly connects with some of the greatest Christian mysteries.’[8] We could claim that the cross combines ‘simplicity and profound meaning to a greater extent than any other symbol.’[9]
‘The sacred central point of this world is the sign of the Holy Cross, symbol of the New Testament, symbol of victory over death, and the intersection of the heavenly and the earthly. As St. John Damascene further states: As the four ends of the Cross are held together and united by its centre, so are the height and the depths, the length and the breadth, that is, all creation visible and invisible, held together by the power of God [(The Orthodox Faith)]. This is affirmed by St. John Chrysostom, who pointed out that the Cross is the joining of the heavenly and the earthly and the defeat of Hell [Works, Vol. II, Bk. 1, St. Petersburg, 1905, p.953].’[10]
As Christianity spread, so did the practice of crossing oneself and also the Tradition of the Cross. This was also a reality within the desert, meaning by the monastics (monks, nuns and ascetics). They sacrificed themselves, or rather crucified themselves, for the salvation of the world, through their prayer and their life. ‘In this way they began to bring into spiritual truth the nature of the cross. The sign and symbol of the cross were understood among them not so much in relation to the historic relic, but as the archetype of the crucifixion of the self – the ascetic way to subjugate the passions of the body and the soul. The simple symbol fulfilled the spiritual need of the early church for a reminder of Jesus’ historic and wilful death for humankind.’[11]
The cross is also evident in the prevalent architectural style within the Byzantine tradition. Despite having church buildings in many shapes and sizes, the dominant and easily identifiable Orthodox Church building is the Cross formed with a dome. The Church represents the entire universe, where we have the meeting of heaven and earth.

When does the Orthodox Church Celebrate the Cross?
The Orthodox Church is also known as the Church of the Resurrection, due to the fact that we, in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, give a certain significance to the Resurrection, understanding it as the centre of our faith. This is also verified by St Paul, who claims: ‘And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). However, this does not mean that we do not give any importance to the Cross. Let us not forget that without the Cross, without Christ’s death we would not have the Resurrection and hence the salvation of mankind.
The Orthodox Church celebrates the Cross in a number of instances. For those who do not know, the Orthodox New Year is celebrated on the 1st September. The Church, interestingly enough, celebrates on the 14th of September the Exaltation of the Cross; therefore, one of the first major celebrations in the Orthodox calendar year is dedicated to the Cross. On this day the Cross is commemorated in a spirit of triumph, and not in a sorrowful way (as is evident on, for example, Good Friday). On this day the Orthodox are reminded of the vision of the Cross, seen by the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD, shortly before the victory over Maxentius. It is said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the sign of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, “By this symbol you will conquer.” He was struck with amazement by the sight, and his whole army witnessed the miracle. After this event they carved the sign of the cross on the army’s shields together with the inscription. This divine intervention allowed Constantine and his army to win the battle, after which he became Emperor of the newly formed Byzantine Empire.
Additionally, the feast of the Exaltation recalls the finding of the True Cross by Constantine and his mother, St Helen. Tradition has it that she and her son both found the Cross together with the other two crosses. How were they to identify the True Cross? On that day there was a funeral procession. St Helen asked for them to place the dead body on one of the crosses. Nothing happened. Again they placed it on the other and again nothing. When they placed the dead person on the last Cross, the person was resurrected. That is how they were able to identify the True Cross.
Also this feast commemorates the second great Exaltation of the Cross, at Constantinople in 629 AD. The True Cross had fallen into the hands of the Persians in 614 AD, when they captured the Holy City of Jerusalem. It was subsequently recovered by Emperor Heraclius and brought to the Byzantine capital where it was triumphantly exalted in the great Church of Hagia Sophia.
The Third Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the ‘The Veneration of the Cross.’ ‘The commemoration and ceremonies of the Third Sunday of Lent are closely parallel to the feasts of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) and the Procession of the Cross (August 1). Before the end of the Matins Service on this day, a cross is brought out from the sanctuary into the nave of the church in front of the iconostasis in solemn procession. After censing it, both the clergy and the people venerate the Cross. On this day the chanters sing the famous chant: ‘We venerate your cross, o Lord, and glorify your holy resurrection.’
Not only does the Sunday of the Holy Cross prepare us for commemoration of the Crucifixion, but it also reminds us that the whole of Lent is a period when we are crucified with Christ.’[12] One of the hymns sung during Vespers of the fourth Sunday of Lent claims:
Having passed beyond the middle point in this holy season of the Feast, with joy let us go forward to the part that still remains, anointing our souls with the oil of almsgiving. So may we be counted worthy to venerate the divine Passion of Christ our God, and to attain His dread and holy Resurrection.
            Why does the Orthodox Church dedicate this Sunday in the middle of Lent to the Cross, since we are to live the Passion and Crucifixion during Holy Week? We find the answer to this question in the Synaxarion for this day – (The Synaxarion is to be found in the hymnbooks used by the chanters where the feast of the day is explained, whether it is an event or a saint’s day). There we read:
On this third Sunday of the Great Fast we celebrate the Veneration of the precious and life-giving Cross. Since during the forty days of the Fast we are also in a way crucified, mortified to the passions, contrite, abased and despondent, the precious and life-giving Cross is offered to us as refreshment and confirmation, calling to mind the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and comforting us. . . Just as those who have travelled a long hard road, weighed down by the labours of their journey, in finding a shady tree, take their ease for a moment and continue their journey rejuvenated, so now in this time of the Fast, this sorrowful and laborious journey, the Holy Fathers have planted the life-giving Cross before us, for our relief and refreshment, to encourage and make easier the labours that lie ahead.[13]
Therefore, it is apparent that the Orthodox Church has placed the celebration of the Cross in the middle of Lent in order to remind us and our efforts of the Passion, Sufferings and Crucifixion of Christ. These efforts coincide with our personal struggles during this fasting period, during this period of charity and a period where the countless, in many ways, services of the Church invite us to constantly be part of this journey towards Holy Week, a week where the sadness of the events lead to the glory and happiness of the Resurrection. We cannot, therefore, reach the joy of the Resurrection without our passage through Lent. This is reflected in all the hymns of the Sunday of the Cross. From the hymns and the placing of this celebration in the middle of Lent we can identify that ‘Orthodoxy never separates Christ’s death and resurrection: it is the cross that brings new life, and new life cannot be had without death.’[14] The cross, therefore, is the life-giving Cross, because the Creator and the source of life gave His life on the Cross for us and for our salvation. This makes the Cross a personal reality for us faithful. We are reminded of Matthew’s Gospel here, where Jesus states: ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me’ (Matthew 16:24). 
The placing of the celebration of the Cross in the middle of Lent can also signify something else: ‘when a king is coming, at first his banner and symbols appear, then he himself comes glad and rejoicing about his victory and filling with joy those under him; likewise, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is about to show us His victory over death, and appear to us in the glory of the Resurrection Day, is sending us in advance His sceptre, the royal symbol-- the Life-Giving Cross-- and it fills us with joy and makes us ready to meet, inasmuch as it is possible for us, the King Himself, and to render glory to His victory....’[15]
After this Sunday we begin the second part of Lent. On the Fourth Sunday we hear the following announcement: ‘The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill Him, and when He is killed, after three days He will rise again’ (Mark 9:31). ‘The emphasis shifts now from us, from our repentance and effort, to the events which took place “for our sake and for our salvation.”’[16]

ICON: ‘The most common icon associated with the Veneration of the Cross is a similar icon used on the Feast of the Veneration of the Cross on September 14. In the icon, Patriarch Macarius is standing in the pulpit elevating the Cross for all to see and venerate. On each side of the Patriarch are deacons holding candles. The elevated Cross is surrounded and venerated by many clergy and lay people, including Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, and the Emperor, who both found the Cross.
In the background of the icon is a domed structure that represents the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. This church was one of the churches constructed and dedicated by Emperor Constantine on the holy sites of Jerusalem.
Another icon related to this feast depicts the actual service of veneration that is conducted in the churches on the Third Sunday of Lent. In the centre of the icon is the Cross. It is on a table surrounded by flowers. Above the Cross is the image of Christ representing His glory. He is blessing those who have gathered to venerate the Cross, the rulers, clergy, monastics, and laity.
As in the service of veneration, the icon shows the priest venerating the Cross as the people chant the hymn “We venerate Your Cross, O Christ, and Your holy Resurrection we glorify,” which is inscribed on the table holding the Cross.’[17]
One of the most significant days and one of the most strict fasting days in the Orthodox calendar is of course Good Friday, where the Son of God is Crucified for our salvation. Interestingly enough, ‘liturgically, the profound and awesome event of the death and burial of God in the flesh is marked by a particular kind of silence, meaning by the absence of a Eucharistic celebration. Great Friday and Great Saturday are the only two days of the year when no Eucharistic assembly is held.’[18]
            ‘The focus of Great Friday is on the passion, death and burial of our Lord Jesus Christ. The commentary (ipomnima) in the Triodion (the book used by the chanters during Lent) records it thusly:
"On the Great and Holy Friday we commemorate the holy, saving and awesome sufferings of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ: the spitting, the striking, the scourging, the cursing, the mockery; the crown of thorns, the purple cloak, the rod, the sponge, the vinegar and gall, the nails, the spear; and above all the cross and the death, which He voluntarily endured for us. Also we commemorate the saving confession of the grateful thief who was crucified with Him."’[19]
In the Orthodox Tradition, Good Friday shows the central place the Cross holds within our faith. This day holds within it a great paradox, even for us Christians. How can the Son of God, who is God – as proclaimed in the Creed: ‘And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father . . .’ – He who is eternal and without suffering be brought to death by His own creations? This is what the Athenians could not understand when St Paul spoke to them about the unknown God (Acts 17:16-34).
The Cross maintains a theological importance for our salvation. It might have been certain people in a specific time, who eventually sent Jesus to the Cross; however, ‘it is all human sin which nails Christ to the cross. Yet in Christ is embodied the love of God which cannot allow him to abandon the men and women created in his image, and which suffers until humankind comes to its senses, turns back to God, and wills to live in obedience to his commandments.’ [20] The Passion and the Cross indicate the truth that ‘God is not remote from nor immune to the suffering of his creation. He cannot be, because he is love; and so he suffers in and with those who suffer innocently. The passion and death of Jesus is the measure of God’s own involvement in human pain.’[21]
In the hymns of the day we are reminded of the fact that he is both God and man. Jesus is humiliated in His humanity but glorified as God. That is why the Orthodox Church chants one of its greatest hymns on this day, claiming:
Today he is hung upon a tree, he who hung the earth upon the waters (x3).He is arrayed in a crown of thorns, he who is the King of the Angels. He is wrapped in mocking purple, he who wraps the heaven in clouds. He receives a blow on the face, he who freed Adam in Jordan. He is transfixed with nails, the Bridegroom of the Church. He is pierced by a lance, the Son of the Virgin. We worship your Sufferings, O Christ (x3). Show us also your glorious Resurrection.[22]
The Crucifixion and the Resurrection are not separated from each other. They are related; that is why the Cross is seen as a victorious emblem. When we see the Cross, we can also see the coming Resurrection. Every Sunday, during the Matins Service, before the Divine Liturgy, we express this belief, where we read:
Having seen the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless one. We worship Your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Your holy Resurrection. For You are our God; we know no other but You; we name You by name. Come, all the faithful, let us worship the holy Resurrection of Christ; for behold, through the Cross, joy has come into all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, we sing His Resurrection. For having endured the Cross for us, by death He has destroyed death. (Prayer after the reading of the Sunday Matins Gospel).[23]
We Christians cross ourselves with pride, not in shame. It is something we should all be proud about. We sing during the Vespers of the Third week of Lent:
Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross, O bright paradise of the Church, O Tree of incorruption, thou who didst bring forth for us the enjoyment of glory everlasting, through whom the hosts of devils are driven out, the ranks of angels rejoice together, and the congregations of believers celebrate, O unconquerable weapon and impregnable foundation, the triumph of kings and the pride of Priests, grant us to apprehend the Passion of Christ and his Resurrection.[24]
The relation between Crucifixion and Resurrection is evident during a service celebrated on Good Friday, i.e. the Service of the Deposition, it is the service where the priest takes down Christ from the cross and places the Crucified Icon of Christ in the Sanctuary, where He will remain until the Feast of the Ascension. After this the epitaphios (an embroidered icon of the burial of Christ) is placed in the flowery tomb. During this time the chanters sing:
When from the Tree the Arimathean took You down as a dead body, O Christ, who are the life of all, he buried You with myrrh and a shroud; and with love he embraced Your immaculate body with heart and lips; yet, shrouded with fear, he cried out to You, rejoicing, “Glory to Your condescension, O Lover of mankind.”
When in the new tomb You, the Redeemer of all had been laid for the sake of all, Hell became a laughingstock; seeing You, he quaked with fear; the bars were smashed, the gates were shattered, the graves were opened, the dead arose; then Adam with thanksgiving cried out to You, rejoicing, “Glory to Your condescension, O Lover of mankind.” (Aposticha of Vespers for Great Friday).
Therefore, the Service of the Deposition leads us from the sorrow of the Passion, Crucifixion and Burial to Descent into Hades and the eventual Resurrection. 
ICON: The most famous icon of the Cross is the one we venerate on Good Friday, where we see the Crucified Son of God on Golgotha. Jesus is nailed at the hands and feet. Next to him we see His mother, the Virgin Mary grieving with other women, namely Mary Magdalen[25] and Mary Cleopas, St John the Evangelist (the disciple who Jesus loved and Who gave His mother too after His crucifixion – as we read in John’s Gospel 19:26) and one of the Roman centurions. The latter is placed in the icon in order to support the words of St John the Evangelist, where he explains: ‘But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.’ (John 19:34).

The Cross in Iconography
The Cross is also evident in other icons of the Orthodox Church. When celebrating the memory of St Constantine and Helen (21st of May) the icon of the day depicts the two Saints and the Cross, which they found, indicating one of their most significant achievements and blessings, not only for them but also for the whole Church.
Small crosses are held by Saints of the Church who were killed for their faith. Also many Orthodox Churches in the East, which existed during the iconoclastic period (8th-9th centuries AD), where the issue of icons was brought to question within the Christians world, used instead of icons the Cross or Christian symbols, such as the fish, the dove, the vine, the lyra, the anchor, the ark and the XP, using thus Christ’s name.
Some ancient Churches have another unique feature. In this picture we see the Gulsehir Karsichurch, a Church in Cappadocia (modern day central Turkey) where the iconoclastic and post-iconoclastic period are evidently coexisting together. The lower Church has crosses on the walls, whilst the upper part is full of icons of Saints and from Christ’s life.

Hagia Sophia – The Fading Crosses.
Walking around the Imperial Church of St Sophia, in Constantinople, one can see evident on its walls and all around it ‘scars’ from its troubled history. Its Christian life coexists with its Muslim past. Both are present and prevail together. However, this coexistence has not been a healthy one. St Sophia, after the invasion of the City by the Ottoman Turks (29 May 1453) became a mosque. When this happened, the icons and the Christian symbols inside were either destroyed or covered, since Islam does not allow for icons or any depictions to be present within a mosque.
Interestingly enough, since St Sophia has become a museum, many icons and Christian symbols have been uncovered, showing thus the Christian past and grandeur. One thing evident all around the interior of the Church is, of course, the cross. Fading crosses adorn the Church. Sometimes they are more evident than in other cases, underneath the Islamic art. You can call this coexistence or destruction. However, it shows both co-inhabiting the same walls.

The Holy Cross in Britain
A significant event, which was unfortunately not advertised greatly, was the Holy Cross’s visit to Britain. Following the request of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain and the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, His Beatitude the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos, and the Synod of the Holy Sepulchre, agreed to send the Precious and Life-giving Cross to the UK. The Cross visited more than 15 Orthodox Churches around England, considered as one of the most important events and a unique spiritual moment in the life of Orthodoxy in this country.
Relics, for the Orthodox, play a significant part in our faith. They are, in many ways, a further verification of our faith and what it means to be in communion with God. Relics are part of the earthly remains of Orthodox Saints, the Holy Cross or even vestments which were worn by the Saints. When a new Orthodox Church is consecrated one of the key practices is to place holy relics in the middle of the altar table.  The relics of the Saints are venerated because we believe that the body remains a temple of the Holy Spirit even after death. Also, this relates to why we have icons of Saints and why we dedicate Churches to their memory, they are an example we need to maintain in order to reach salvation (theosis) and communion with God. That is why we show respect, because they achieved our objective in life.
In addition, we see that many miracles are performed through these relics, as we saw in the case of St Helen and St Constantine when they wished to verify the true Holy Cross. One of the requirements the Orthodox Church has for the proclamation of a Saint is that the Saint’s relics actually perform a miracle after death. (The other two requirements for Sainthood is that the body remains intact and that it maintains an aromatic smell).
The Bible records many accounts of the value of relics and even episodes of miraculous events connected with them. "People brought to [Jesus] all who were sick and begged him that they might only touch the tassel on his cloak, and as many as touched it were healed" (Mt 14:35-36; cf. Mk 6:56; Lk 8:43-44). It was not uncommon for ordinary objects, like the tassel on the Lord's cloak, to have miraculous characteristics. Look also at Acts 5:15, where even Peter's shadow could cause miraculous healings.
Regarding the relics of saints, especially martyrs (about whom the Bible says, "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his holy ones" [Ps 116:15]), look at 2 Kings 13:21:
Elisha died and was buried. At the time, bands of Moabites used to raid the land each year. Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they spied such a raiding band. So they cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.
A New Testament verification of this practice, where we see that miracles glorify Christ is to be found in Acts (19:11-12), where we read: ‘Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them.’ Therefore, we can identify that the belief in relics is verified within Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

How do the Orthodox Cross Themselves
            Now that we explained the importance of the Cross and when it is celebrated we can talk about how the Orthodox cross themselves. When we enter a Church, or even if we walk past an Orthodox Church we tend to do the sign of the Cross. During the services, whenever we hear the name of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Trinity, of a Saint we tend to cross ourselves. When we wish to venerate an icon, or the Cross we normally do the sign of the cross and then kiss the icon.
We hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, last two fingers pressed down to the palm. The three fingers together symbolise the Holy Trinity, whilst the two fingers brought down to the palm symbolise the two natures of Christ. We also use just one hand, the right one, symbolising what Jesus was – meaning two natures in one person. The right hand reminds us that Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father. ‘Furthermore, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away the enemies and indicates that the lord through his invincible might had conquered the devil who is on the left, a powerless and gloomy being.’[26] The movement is up, down, right and left.
When we cross ourselves this indicates that we are Christians, that we invoke the power and the mercy of the cross of Christ, it is a way to sanctify ourselves and remind ourselves of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It signifies that we, the faithful, exist in distinction from the heretics who do not believe in the Truths of the Church. It is a constant reminder of who we are and what our objective is in life, i.e. our salvation and our communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

‘The sign of the cross reveals the name of Christ and recapitulates his work for salvation. The cross is a symbolic connection between heaven and earth and a symbol of death to the world and our resurrection in Jesus Christ. The sign of the cross points to the Last Judgement and is an instrument of salvation and healing against the consequences of the Fall and original sin. The cross signifies personal and also communal worship, and it inspires wordless prayer.’[27]
The Cross maintains a universal character. According to the Canon hymns of the Exaltation of the Cross, also sung during the Service of Baptism, we understand the timeless character of the Cross, where we sing:
Inscribing the invincible weapon of the Cross upon the waters, Moses marked a straight line before him with his staff and divided the Red Sea, opening a path for Israel who went over dry-shod. Then he marked a second line across the waters and united them in one, overwhelming the chariots of Pharaoh. Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, for He has been glorified. (Canticle one – Irmos).
Therefore, the Cross, according to this hymn exists before Christ’s time, being evident in the Old Testament era. ‘This Tree of Life, united in the Cross of Golgotha, was seen [also in another Old testament story], as the brass serpent which Moses made on the tree in obedience to God's command, by which those who had been bitten by poisonous serpents, upon looking at this brass serpent would remain alive. This was referred to by the Lord, Who said: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).’[28]
We should all have in our mind the salvation we receive from the Cross. If our objective as Christians is our salvation, or according to the Orthodox our theosis, where we become saintly, meaning in communion with God, then we can achieve this with the power of the Cross which leads to the Resurrection. As one hymn claims:
The fiery sword no longer guards the gate of Eden, for in a strange and glorious way the wood of the Cross has quenched its flames. The sting of death and the victory of hell are now destroyed, for Thou art come, my Saviour, crying unto those in hell: ‘Return again to Paradise.’ (Kontakion – Sunday of the Cross).
‘The simple sign of the cross is one way of many to pray and at the same time to contemplate, as all prayer does, the mystery of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’[29]

[1] This talk was given on the 25th February 2016 at St Mary’s Church Redbourn.
[2] The Eastern Orthodox understanding of icon is that it is a sacred image, a window into heaven. They are not merely art, they play a significant spiritual role within the life and practice of the Church, as Yannaras explains: ‘Byzantine iconography does not “decorate” the church but has an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the Eucharistic event, existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life.’ Yannaras, Christos, The Freedom of Morality, (New York, SVSP, 1996), p.258.
St John of Damascus, when defending icons, in order to show their importance for the Church, explains: ‘What the book does for those who understand letters, the image does for the illiterate; the word appeals to hearing, the image appeals to sight; it conveys understanding.’ St John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Behr, John (ed.), (New York, SVSP, 2003), p.31. Additionally, St John promotes the Orthodox belief, in regards to veneration, explaining: ‘I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of the matter, who became matter for my own sake . . .’ Ibid., p.29. The veneration of icons was also validated in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, due to the iconoclastic period.

[3] (St. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter XVIII).
[4] Matthews-Green, Frederica, ‘Foreword,’ in Andreopoulos, Andreas, The Sign of the Cross – The Gesture, The Mystery, The History, (2006), p.xi.
[5] Ibid.
[7] Andreopoulos, Andreas, The Sign of the Cross – The Gesture, The Mystery, The History, (2006), p.6.
[8] Ibid., p.4.
[9] Ibid., p.5.
[11] Andreopoulos, p.8.
[13] Papavassiliou, Vassilios, Meditations for Great Lent, pp.78-79.
[14] Wybrew, Hugh, Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter, p.63.
[16] Schmemann, Alexander, Great Lent – Journey to Pascha, (1990), p.77.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Wybrew, p.114.
[21] Ibid.
[23] Papavassiliou, pp.80-81.
[25] Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out. Mary Magdalene seems to play a protagonistic role, in regards to the first sighting of the empty tomb. The hymns proclaim:
“All things have been filled with joy on receiving proof of the Resurrection. For Mary Magdalen came to the grave, found an Angel seated on the stone and dazzling in shining raiment, who said, ‘Why do you seek the living with the dead? He is not here, but he has risen, as he said, and goes before you into Galilee.’
St Mary Magdalene is honoured as an equal to the Apostles and as a Myrrhbearer. She is celebrated on the 22nd of July and on the 4th of May, the day her holy relics were found. She is also remembered on the Third Sunday after Easter, the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers.
For more information on Mary Magdalene: Salapatas, Dimitris, ‘Mary Magdalene in the Orthodox Church,’ Orthodox Herald, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, April – May – June 2014, Issue 307-309, pp. 23-25.
[26] Peter of Damascus, Book 1 – ‘On the Differences between Thoughts and Provocations,’ Philokalia, Vol.3, Athens, 1960, 110.   
[27] Andreopoulos, p. 137.
[29] Andreopoulos, p.138.


  1. This is very good, my friend. I believe, however, that I must have a word with you about referring to the Church of Holy Wisdom as "St. Sophia." :-)

  2. This is very good, my friend. I believe, however, that I must have a word with you about referring to the Church of Holy Wisdom as "St. Sophia." :-)