In the day (or days) leading up to Good Friday, crosses and crucifixes are generally covered or, in some cases, removed altogether from the worship spaces of Catholic churches including those in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. For a brief period, the most recognizable symbol of Christian faith doesn’t exist; it hasn’t happened yet. This lends a sense of mystery, shock, and awe to the ritual Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, as, in its most common form, the symbol is slowly unveiled by a priest or deacon, who with each new revelation, chants “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” The act itself is titled: The Showing of the Holy Cross. But the Cross has not always been at the center of Good Friday worship, not in image anyway. In fact, it was not the first Christian symbol of our salvation.
The cross as a symbol existed long before Christianity, and in some cases was used by non-religious or pagan people. It is, for instance, one of the emblems associated with the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. There are also Christian myths galore, some perpetuated by The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. In his collection of tales, Voragine, a Dominican friar, who was forcibly selected to be Archbishop of Genoa, Italy in 1292, revealed a fantastic story of how the wood of the cross actually came from an ancient splicing of three different types of tree, forming a grand old stand known to both David and Solomon. The legend further says that the true Cross of Christ was buried at Calvary and discovered there by St Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, three hundred years later.
The first question that came to mind was: what exactly did St Helena uncover? Historic detail reveals that Jesus was not put on a cross that resembled a lower case ‘t,’ and did not carry a fully assembled cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was a leading form of execution to the Romans especially in distant regions which they dominated. The naked corpse of a tortured soul sent a powerful message to any who might rebel against Roman rule. They carried out some of these types of executions along major roads to make sure they were seen. In Jerusalem there was a shortage of wood, and the Romans built scaffolding that could be used over and over. The victims were often made to carry the crossbeam, which was attached to the scaffolding, or ‘tree,’ as some have called it.
The image of the crucified Lord has been cleaned up for our modern eyes. Scripture tells us that Jesus was stripped naked, which would have been in line with the oppressor’s policy among the Jews. Not only was he not wearing a piece of cloth, his feet were not standing on a little pedestal either. That would have defeated the purpose of this form of execution, which was meant to cause an internal collapse and slow suffocation.
Although it seems Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders orchestrated the entire event, the Romans would not have permitted the Jews to crucify anyone, and the execution of Jesus was carried out by them. John’s Gospel tells that the Jews generally got what they wanted regarding this ‘blasphemer,’ but were rebuked by Pontius Pilate when they tried to change the nameplate above Jesus’ head. The initials ‘INRI’ that appear on modern crucifixes are the abbreviations for the Latin words that spelled out “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Pharisees insisted the Roman governor change it to “he said he was…” Pilate refused to make any changes. The title was actually written in three languages including Hebrew and Greek, and the four initials were adopted by the early Christians when they first began to honor the symbol of Jesus’ death.
Before the acceptance of the cross’ symbolic meaning, Christians held up other icons including what has become known as the ‘soul anchor,’ most recently restored in a recording by Christian composer and educator, Michael Card in 2000. His album Soul Anchor reveals that the sight of an ancient anchor, looking more like a cross than the odd shaped anchors of our modern era, was a sign of hope especially demonstrated in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Hebrews was long thought to have been written by St Paul, but further study has suggested otherwise…perhaps Barnabas or Apollos, the Alexandrian Jew who was taught by trusted disciples of Paul. The letter has a unique style that spells out great hope for the new Christians if they only have faith. “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, steadfast and sure.” (Hebrews 6:19) The Scripture continues to reveal life as a stormy sea with hope as the anchor for the persevering faithful. By the end of the first century of Christianity, the soul anchor, marked in catacombs and on holy places, was replaced by an even greater sign of hope: the Cross of Jesus.
There is not a set-in-stone formula for covering the images in our parishes. In earlier days, the Passion of the Lord was read as early as the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and often, that was when the crucifixes were covered, as well. Some practice the covering as an event that takes place on Holy Thursday in preparation for the slow unveiling the following day. When the service of Good Friday begins most worship spaces are as bare as a tomb, and that is the purpose. In other words, different parishes may cover the icon two weeks or two days, all of Holy Week or anything in between.
The Sign of the Cross has become a distinctly Catholic image and prayer shared with the Orthodox Christians. The reverent touching of one’s mind, heart, and shoulders signifies, not only the belief in the true salvation by the Cross, but also of the Holy Trinity of God. It is an affirmation of all the hope and faith that has gone before. The Cross of Good Friday, slowly uncovered or thrust powerfully before our eyes, is indeed the symbol of hope and peace that the world cannot give. It is the symbol of the love of Jesus the Lord.