An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


The instrument of Jesus' death and the central symbol of the Christian faith. It represents Jesus' offering and sacrifice of his life in love for us and our salvation. The cross thus symbolizes the Christian life, especially in terms of love, generosity, and sacrifice.

The cross itself was a vertical stake in the ground which often had a horizontal piece attached at the top or just below the top of the vertical piece. Death on a cross was both execution and extreme torture. The victim to be executed on the cross would be attached to it until death. At times an inscription would be attached to the cross to state the victim's crime. Crucifixion was a shameful death that carried with it a considerable stigma in Jesus' day. Jesus' death on a cross is described in the NT gospels (Mt 27, Mk 15, Lk 23, Jn 19).

The cross has been the traditional focus of Christian piety. The practice of making the sign of the cross on the forehead dates from the second century. Devotion to the cross was spurred by the alleged finding of the true cross of Jesus' crucifixion in the fourth century. Use of altar crosses dates from the fifth century, and use of processional crosses dates from the sixth century. During the middle ages, large crosses, or roods, were placed on beams at the dividing point between the chancel and nave of the church. Designs for crosses became very ornate, and some crosses were decorated with jewels.

Crosses are used in Christian art and architecture, and worn as an expression of personal piety. Crosses are found in a variety of shapes and sizes. A crucifix is a cross with a figure of the crucified Christ. A Christus Rex is a cross with a figure of the risen Christ in glory. A Jerusalem cross is a cross with four small crosses in between the arms of the larger cross.

The Prayer Book Good Friday service allows a wooden cross to be brought into the church after the solemn collects. The cross is placed in the sight of the people, and appropriate devotions may follow (BCP, pp. 281-282). Hymns in The Hymnal 1982 that express devotion to the cross include "When I survey the wondrous cross" (474), "In the cross of Christ I glory" (441-442), and "Lift high the cross" (473).

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.