Friday 1 September 2017

Why do we wear a cross?

Most of us can answer this question quite simply by saying that we wear a cross because we were given a cross to wear at our baptism. The priest puts a cross around the neck of the newly-baptized in the Orthodox baptism service. We don’t have to wear this exact same cross (children are often given another one to wear in case they lose their baptismal one), but we must wear a cross. 

In the light of the recent controversy in the UK about a foster-child allegedly being made to remove her cross by her Muslim foster parents, it might be worth looking into why Orthodox Christians wear a cross and why others (even heterodox Christians) object both to wearing a cross and to making the sign of the cross.

The idea of Christians having to remove a cross is unfortunately not new. In 2006, British Airways asked a female employee to cover up the cross she was wearing, despite permitting the wearing of other visible religious symbols such as the hijab and turban. The woman, a Coptic Christian, appealed and the case ended up in the European Court of Human Rights which ruled in her favour. During the dispute the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated that it was not necessary for Christians to wear a cross and that it was merely an optional decoration.

The woman, on the other hand, argued that wearing a visible cross was an essential part of her Christian witness. Orthodox Christians, however, take a different view. It is not essential that people see our cross – most often they can’t because we wear it under our clothes. So why do we wear a cross? It is not just a decoration and it’s not necessary for us to display it.

The cross is the example of how we should live our Christian life because Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow Him (cf. Matt 16:24) Through the cross, Christ destroyed death and the power of the devil. The symbol of the cross is therefore invested with the power and grace to destroy the snares and traps of the devil which is why, as well as wearing a cross, we make the sign of the cross when we pray, when we bless our food, before starting work and in times of temptation. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the foundation of Christianity. This sacrifice occurred so that we might be reconciled to the Father through God’s surpassing love for us. It is this love that we must remember when we look on the cross.

Jews and Muslims understandably do not accept the cross because they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God. It is more surprising that some heterodox Christian groups do not accept it either. The Roman Catholic Church is superficially the closest to the Orthodox on this issue. Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross and many Catholics wear a cross. The biggest contrast with the Orthodox is that the wearing of a cross is optional for Roman Catholics – the cross is not given as part of the Roman Catholic baptism service.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are perhaps the most well known of those object to the cross, however this group cannot strictly be called Christian because they do not believe that Christ is God. Unlike Protestant Christians, they teach that Christ was not crucified on a cross but on a stake – this teaching is unknown in any Christian tradition.

Among Protestants there are many different opinions concerning the significance of the Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the relevance of the symbol of the cross today. Most (with the exception of the Lutherans) do not make the sign of the cross or even wear a cross. Most Protestant churches, although rejecting the use of a cross in worship, might have one somewhere in the building. The fish symbol has replaced the cross in newer Protestant churches.

The nearest Protestants to the Orthodox position on the cross are the Lutherans, who make the sign of the cross as taught by one of the founders of Protestantism Martin Luther (d.1546): ‘In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer’.

Strangely, some of the biggest opponents of the wearing and use of the cross in worship are Anglicans who are otherwise pretty liberal in their beliefs. In the nineteenth century the Protestant wing of the Church of England spent a small fortune prosecuting Anglican priests (and successfully getting them sent to prison) for the crime of having a cross on the altar table which was regarded as being too Roman Catholic.

The Anglican Church is not really Protestant in the sense that the Lutheran Church is; the traditional beliefs and practices of the Church of England owe more to the Puritans than the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther. The Puritans were dedicated to removing all trace of Roman Catholicism from sixteenth century England. They destroyed relics, shrines, books, vestments and persecuted anyone who dared oppose them. They could perhaps be described as the ISIS of the sixteenth century. In the newly emerging United States, Puritans arriving from England carried on in much the same fashion.

As a result of their influence, Puritan teachings began to supplant the teachings of Luther and this explains why, even today, most Protestants regard the sign of the cross as Roman Catholic and are almost frightened of making it – little knowing that one of the most important founders of Protestantism regarded it as essential.

The idea that wearing a cross is ‘Roman Catholic’ is also tied up with the modern Protestant idea of rejecting everything ‘old’ in favour of the ‘new’. Most young Protestants today would reject all the Ecumenical Councils - even if they had heard of them. Most would regard the Creed as an unnecessary invention. It is this opposition to tradition that fuels their rejection of the cross. It is strange though that the ancient Christian fish symbol is used instead of the cross in these churches. Surely, it would be more logical to accept the Creed and make the sign of the cross as Martin Luther did? The reason that Luther’s practice isn’t followed is because these modern Protestants believe that Luther himself was wrong and had deviated from the truth. For them, Christianity ended sometime in the first or second century and was only re-invigorated in the late twentieth century.

Some Evangelical Protestants reject the cross because they are not really convinced that it was necessary. For them, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a far-off event that doesn’t really matter anymore. This idea is sometimes called ‘easy-believism’ or more properly ‘Non-Lordship Salvation’. The general idea is that one only has to believe that one is saved in order to be saved; there is no need to accept Jesus as Lord, to follow His commandments or to take up one’s cross and follow Him. This belief is quite common especially among the newer churches that have emerged over the last twenty years or so. This teaching is clearly contrary to Scripture. Saint Paul teaches that we become ‘heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom. 8:17).

‘Easy-believism” is also not traditionally Protestant. John Calvin, who along with Luther, was one of the most important founders of Protestantism speaks of the importance of Christians ‘bearing their cross’. The Protestants who follow Calvin’s teachings do not make the sign of the Cross, but also completely reject the idea of ‘easy-believism’. Calvin himself said:
Now, by saying that the world was crucified to him and he to the world, it is certain that Paul means the same thing, yet he wants to reinforce that we can indeed renounce this world and be separate from it, by being crucified to ourselves with regard to the world.
Some Protestants object to the symbol of the cross because it is an object of suffering and humiliation. This is a common view among Protestants whom the Orthodox literature refers to as ‘Judaizing’. In modern English we would probably refer to them as ‘Christian Zionists’. This idea is common among Protestant Fundamentalists in America and is based on the idea that the Jewish people are the chosen of God and that the State of Israel is a continuation of the Old Testament Israel. These Protestants are waiting for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the Old Testament priesthood and worship including animal sacrifices.

Because they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God, it is understandable that Jewish people still regard the cross as an instrument of punishment that should not be reverenced. However, this opposition to the cross is not confined just to the Jews. Saint Paul says: ‘But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (1. Cor. 23-24) Orthodox Christians venerate the cross because by being raised on It, Christ opened the way to Paradise for us again and made us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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