Belief in brief: The cross

Friday, April 25, 2008 | 1:00 p.m. CDT; updated 8:22 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 9, 2008

COLUMBIA — It graces altars and automobiles, flags and flyers and steeples and stained glass. But the cross, now the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith, comes from a bloody past.

The cross was adopted by the early church as a commemoration of the sacrifice that Christians believe Jesus made to atone for the sins of the world when he was crucified.


An instrument of death

Crucifixion was a common method of capital punishment among Persians, Seleucids, Carthaginians and Romans from about the 6th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. This punishment was usually reserved for political and religious criminals, as well as for slaves and pirates.

Typically, a person condemned to be crucified would be beaten and then fixed to a crossbeam that he or she was then forced to carry to the site of the execution. The beam was then affixed to an upright post to which the subject’s feet were nailed in place. Death was usually a result of exhaustion, heart failure or asphyxiation, and was sometimes expedited by breaking the condemned victim’s legs with a club.

In 337 A.D., Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, abolished the use of crucifixion in homage to Jesus.


Symbolic variations

Before the adoption of the symbol by Christians, the cross as a symbol appears in the ankh, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic meaning life. It also appeared in other cultures and religions in the form of a swastika, a form that didn’t take on a negative connotation until its adoption by Nazi Germany in the 1920s.

There are four basic representations of the Christian cross, the most common of which are the Greek and Latin crosses. The Greek cross features four equilateral arms. The Latin cross is signified by an elongated stem topped by three equal arms and is traditionally believed to be the form of the cross used in Jesus’ crucifixion. However, some believe thet-shaped crux commissa, or St. Anthony’s cross, to be the one used in his death. The different denominational variations of the cross are derived from the four basic representations.

Before Constantine’s reign, Christians were hesitant to display the cross for fear of persecution. Until the Protestant Reformation, the cross was typically displayed as a crucifix in religious ornamentation and ceremony. A crucifix depicts Jesus at his death on the cross, whereas a cross does not. After the Reformation, Lutherans retained the use of the cross, but many reformed churches didn’t adopt the use of the symbol until the 20th century. The Roman Catholic Church retained the use of the crucifix as “the principal ornament of the altar,” according to New Advent.

Appearance in culture

Today, the cross is both a sign of the Christian faith and a reminder of Jesus’ message.

For more in Faith, go to the Missourian’s blog Faith in Focus.

Sources:, Religion Newswriters Association, New Advent,

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