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A Cross for All Christians

History in Your Hand

An icon of the essence of Christianity and its spread from the

Holy Land to the south, the east, the west, and the north

 

by

 

Eugene Cumming Planck

Of old the cross was truth’s central sign, and it is today.

                                        Mary Baker Eddy

                                        Science and Health

                                        with Key to the

                                        Scriptures, p. 224

Possibly as early as the 2nd century of the Christian era, Christians adopted the Cross as the central symbol of their faith — oftentimes to their final peril. Never “worshipping” the Cross as such, the early Christians came to venerate what had long been a Roman device for torturous and intentionally gruesome public execution as the symbol of Christ Jesus’ triumph over death — His demonstration and proof that Life is eternal.  Over the centuries this veneration led to many variations on the symbolic Cross.  

The Cross for All Christians presented here is unlike any other cross.  It brings together the essence of the Christian message in the heretofore unprecedented combination of:

  • two declarations of bedrock Christian doctrine (divided among the four earliest languages of Christianity) — i.e., a proclamation by Christ Jesus in the Gospel of John, and another by John in his First Letter;

  • symbols from the first 1200 years of Christian history;

  • distinctive crosses from Jerusalem, Ethiopia, India, Ireland and Scotland, Armenia, and Russia — alluding to the early spread of Christianity from the Holy Land to the south, the east, the west, and the north.  

 

The basic form of the design is that of Byzantine and Georgian processional crosses of a type known as a Justinian Cross.  It is named after the great Eastern Roman Emperor (reigned A.D. 527-565) who reconquered from the Vandal Kingdom and the Ostrogothic Kingdom much of the lost western half of the Empire.  He also initiated the total rewrite of Roman law which is still the foundation of the civil law of many countries, built the great church of Hagia Sophia (say AH-ghee-ah so-FEE-ah = “Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and fixed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as primal Christian doctrine.  

 

It may be regarded as a decorative cross appropriate for personal use and public display by all Christians everywhere — a cross for all Christendom.  It can be rendered in a variety of materials and sizes — cast in precious metals as personal jewelry or as a pectoral cross for the clergy; carved in stone or wood for the wall or desk, or church-front, or the town square; sculpted or molded in clay, cement, or plaster either three-dimensionally or in bas-relief; depicted two-dimensionally in mosaic, stained glass, fresco, painting, drawing, etc.  

 

Integrated into the front of the cross is the infinite Circle — without beginning and without end — emblematic of eternal God.

 

Within the infinite Circle is the infinite Triquetra — likewise without beginning and without end — denoting the tri-unity of God, Spirit, Mind, and, since the fourth century, symbolizing the Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

The Inscriptions are in the four earliest languages of Christianity — Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.  According to tradition, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. seventy-two Greek-speaking Jewish scholars in Egypt translated under divine inspiration the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.  This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) for the number of scholars involved. It is still today the Bible, the Tanakh, used by Greek-speaking Jews, and the Old Testament used by Greek-speaking Christians.  Jesus and His contemporaries spoke Aramaic in everyday conversation, and read and heard Hebrew in the Temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues. From perhaps the 4th century B.C. to about A.D. 400 the lingua franca — the second language of merchants, traders, shopkeepers, mariners, and educated people generally — throughout the Mediterranean, was Greek.  Accordingly the individual books and letters which came to comprise the New Testament were either written originally in Greek — e.g., the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, et al. —  or were very soon translated from their original  Aramaic into Greek, perhaps by men whose native tongue was Aramaic.  

 

The Inscriptions are taken from two verses in the New Testament:

 

                    John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

                                      -  King James Version

 

                   “I am the Way; I am Truth and Life.”

                                      -  New Jerusalem Bible

 

                    I John 4:16: “God is Love”

                                      - (most translations)

 

In Hebrew the normal three-letter First Person Singular Present Tense (I am) is היה. The four-character Hebrew word - אהיה - on the lower arm of the cross means “I AM” and is pronounced roughly “eh-yeh” or “ech-yech,” where the sound of ch is between that in the Scottish loch and that in the German ich.   This is the divine Name by which God identifies Himself out of the burning bush to Moses and says:

 

                   “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘I AM hath

                     sent me unto you.’”

 

                                      - Exodus 3:1

 

The sense of the four-character Hebrew word here is not simply the present tense, but indeed the past, present, and future tenses all together:     I WAS, AM, and ever SHALL BE --- arguably the most perfect Name for God that is humanly conceivable.   

 

I AM is the first word of Christ Jesus’ proclamation in John 14:6. Furthermore, He uses “I AM” to identify Himself on other occasions as well. For example, in the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well speaks of the coming Messiah.

       

                   “Jesus saith unto her, ‘I that speak unto thee am He.’

                                      - John 4:26

 

However the colloquial koine (say “keeNEH”) Greek of the New Testament records His words to her literally as:

 

                   “I AM that speak unto thee am He.”

                   “ΈΓΏ ΕΊΜΙ, ό λαλών σοι.”

                   “ehgo eemeh, ah lahlon see.”

                                          

                                      - see footnotes on John 4:26 in the

                                        Orthodox Study Bible and the

                                        New Revised Standard Version

 

Later in the Temple, He said to the Scribes and Pharisees:

 

                   “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw

                    it and was glad.”

 

                                      - John 8:58

 

When they scoffed at His assertion that He had seen Abraham centuries earlier, Christ Jesus replied:

 

                   “Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

                   “Άμήν άμήν, Πρίν Άβραάμ γενέσθαι, ΈΓΏ ΕΊΜΙ.”

                   “ameen, ameen, preen avra-ahm ghenesthay, ehgo

                    eemeh.”

 

                                      - John 8:58

 

To the Scribes and Pharisees this personal use by Jesus of the divine Name of God was a shocking blasphemy — and at this they took up stones to stone Him with.

 

                    “But Jesus hid Himself and went out of the Temple, going

                     through the midst of them, and so passed by.”

                                      - John 8:59

 

The formulation of “I am” in the Aramaic, though different from the Hebrew, is also beyond Tense.  Thus in the ancient Aramaic language Bible — the Pshytta — the theophanous import of Christ’s utterance in John 14:6 (“I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”) also proclaims the fact of His eternal omnipresence.

 

The Aramaic word —                    — below the Hebrew at the base of the cross is pronounced roughly “urha,” and means path, road, or way. Before they were called “Christians” (in Antioch, for the first time — see Acts 11:26), the students of Christ Jesus’ words and works were known simply as followers of the Way (see Acts 9:2, 16:17, 18:25-26, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, and 24:22).

 

The Latin words — VERITAS ET VITA — on the horizontal arms of the cross say “Truth and Life.”  Saul of Tarsus was a Jew bearing a kingly name who was a free Roman citizen (see Acts 22:25-29) by virtue of his having been born in Tarsus, the chief city of Cilicia in southeastern Asia Minor and a Free City of the Roman Empire.  (A Free City of the Roman Empire did not have a Roman army garrison). He was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (see Acts 23:6) who had been raised in Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel,” (see Acts 22:3) a greatly respected rabbi under whom Saul had studied.  A zealous and fiery persecutor of Christians, he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, heard Jesus’ voice admonishing him, and realized his profound error (see Acts 22:1-16). Thus chastened and converted, and with his sight restored, Saul thenceforth refers to himself by the humble name, Paul — from the Latin word  paulus, meaning “small” or “little” (see Acts 13:9; also Romans 1:1, I Corinthians 1:1, II Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:1,  etc.).

 

Latin has been used in the Roman Rite for over sixteen centuries, i.e., from the time when the official liturgical language of the Old Roman Rite of the western Church was switched from Greek to Latin.  This change was completed under Pope Damasas around A.D. 384 —- some 60 years after the Emperor Constantine had abolished the Roman laws against Christians.  It was formalized in the revision of the Rite by Pope Gregory the Great in A.D. 595.  

 

The Greek words — Θεος Αγαπη εστιν — on the upper arm of the cross are the arresting — at that time, indeed,  revolutionary — declaration of St. John, the Beloved Disciple, in his first epistle (I John 4:16):  Theos Agape estin (say “thay-oce  ah-gah-pea esteen”) — “God is Love.”  Of the several words for love in the Greek language, Agape means specifically divine Love.

 

Strengthening the back of the cross are several historic Christian symbols.  In the center of the design is the famous Jerusalem Cross. The Jerusalem Cross originated as the emblem — the heraldic Arms — of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded during the First Crusade (A.D. 1095-1099) and nominally surviving till A.D. 1291.  In the broader historical perspective, the First Crusade’s recovery of Jerusalem and the Holy Land was a much-belated counter-offensive against the Muslim Arab invasion and occupation in A.D. 638.  


Guarding the Jerusalem Cross are three smaller eight-pointed “Maltese” crosses, representing the three great monastic orders of knighthood founded during the Crusades.  These warrior-monks are famed in history as the Knights Hospitaller, the Knights Templar, and the Deutsch-ritter, the Knights of the Teutonic Order. 

 

[A literary aside . . . In “The Knight’s Tale,” of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (A.D. 1343-1400) tells us that his knight on pilgrimage to Canterbury to venerate the relics of the “holy, blessed martyr,” (St.Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1380), “loved chivalry, truth and honour, freedom and courtesy.”  Due to his fame and knightly rank, this gentleman had oftentimes been seated at the head of the table “aboven alle nations in Prusse” (Prussia, the nation founded by the Teutonic Knights), and had campaigned in Lithuania and Russia, as well as at the sieges of Alexandria in Egypt and Algeçiras in Spain.  Chaucer therefore must have conceived of his “faire and parfit knight” as either an intrepid knight from the West who had served with the Teutonic Knights — or, more likely, as indeed a gallant and distinguished Deutschritter himself.]

 

Extending outboard from these central crosses are three Fish in simple outline.  The Fish became a secret sign of recognition among the persecuted and endangered early Christians because the initials of the Greek words for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour (Greek: Iysous Christos, Theou Yios, Sotir --- Ιγσους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σοτγρ) spell the Greek word for Fish --- ICHTHYS (Greek: ΙΧΘΥΣ).

 

The different crosses displayed on the ends of the arms of A Cross for All Christians allude to the spread of Christianity in the early centuries from the Holy Land to the South, the East, the West, and the North.

 

According to tradition, Christianity was brought south to Egypt and then to Ethiopia by St. Mark early in the middle of the first century, and became the official religion of Ethiopia in the 4th century under King Ezana. 

 

On the “southern” longer lower arm is the original Ethiopian Cross.   This early  Ethiopian cross  was derived from the  Egyptian hieroglyph ankh,    (crux ansata, “cross with a handle”), a symbol of life to the ancient Egyptians.  The later, and now long traditional, Ethiopian cross (q.v.) seems intricate and complex, but its heart is the simple outline of the cruciform plan of the Church of St. George (Amharic: Bete Gyorgis = House of George) at Lalibela in northwestern Ethiopia.  Bete Gyorgis is one of eleven churches there which between A.D. 1150 and A.D. 1300 were not “built,” but were laboriously, lovingly, amazingly hewn out of solid rock.   (N.B., the Amharic tongue of Ethiopia is a Semitic language related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.)

 

Relations between the Holy Land and Ethiopia had existed at least from the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba down through Apostolic times, when St. Phillip converted and baptized the eunuch who was a high official —- the treasurer —- of the Candace (say “kahn-da-keh”), the Queen of Ethiopia.  (See Acts 8:27-39). The treasurer thus became the first evangelist to his people.

 

Following the treasurer, according to 4th century Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (q.v.), the “father of Church history,” the Apostles Matthew, Nathanael (Bartholomew), and Thomas preached the Holy Gospel in Nubia and Ethiopia.  It seems likely also that Egypt was an early source of Christian influence into Ethiopia. St. Mark is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in A.D. 33, and then to Ethiopia.  (Despite centuries of Muslim persecution, still today some 10-15% or more of all Egyptians are Christians.). However, Christianity became the official religion of Ethiopia only in the 4th century, when two young Syrian monks, Frumentius and his brother, Edessius, convinced King Ezana that Christianity was the right spiritual path for his people to follow.  The king sent Frumentius to Egypt to petition the Coptic (Egyptian) Patriarch of Alexandria to assign a bishop to come to Ethiopia. After Frumentius had stayed in Egypt for some five years of further study, the Patriarch of Alexandria, instead of choosing a ranking bishop, ordained Frumentius himself as the new Bishop of Ethiopia and sent him back.

 

On the “eastern” right arm is the St. Thomas cross, used for centuries by the Nazrani (“Nazarenes”) or St. Thomas Christians of India.  In A.D. 33 St. Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to Mesopotamia, the land between rivers, i.e., between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Largely co-extensive with modern-day Iraq, Mesopotamia had been the heart of the Aramaic-speaking Assyrian and Babylonian empires.   As recorded in the 12th chapter of Genesis, God told Abram of Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia to leave Haran in Asia Minor. with his family, possessions, and followers to go to the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.

 

Over the course of 19 years in Mesopotamia, St. Thomas built the foundations of a Christian community which flourished for some 700 years, until the Muslim Arab conquest in the 8th century.  (After centuries of oppression, many of these Aramaic-speaking Chaldean Christians have emigrated to Europe and North America.)

 

Then in A.D. 52, St. Thomas traveled further east and brought Christ’s  teachings to India, where he labored for 20 more years until being martyred in A.D. 72 in Chennai (old Madras), pierced by a lance.  Today there are more than 8,000,000 St. Thomas Christians, many of them in Kerala state in southern India, who trace their families’ religious roots to the evangelizing mission of St. Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. 

 

The St. Thomas cross is an icon of the Holy Trinity.  It rises from a lotus blossom, symbolizing the serene reception and inculturation of the faith into the ancient Indian civilization, and representing purity, spirituality, spontaneous generation, and divine birth.  In some Asian cultures the lotus flower connotes wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Its unopened bud alludes to a soul which can open to divine Truth. Comprising the foundation of the cross are three steps, representing God the Father.  The cross itself stands for God the Son, and a dove, symbolizing God the Holy Ghost, just touches the top of the cross. The opening and recurving arms of the life-giving cross are budding or fruiting.

 

The “western” left arm displays a Celtic cross, with its hallmark circle or halo, which originated in ancient Ireland and Scotland — lands which were once the westernmost frontier of Christendom.

 

Christianity was introduced into Ireland by St. Patrick (q.v.).  Born Maewyn Succat near what is today Dumbarton, Scotland in A.D. 389, his parents were Romans living in the island of Britain beyond the northern border of the Roman province of Britannia.  His father, Calpurnius, was an ordained deacon of the Christian Church. As a lad of 16 he had been captured and kidnapped by raiders from Ireland led by Niall of the Nine Hostages (q.v.), High King of Ireland and eponymous ancestor of the O’Neills of Ireland and the MacNeills of Scotland.  After toiling for six years as the slave of a land-holding Druid, he escaped back to Britain and studied to become a priest.  Later aiding St. Martin of Tours and St. Germain, cousins of his mother, Conchessa, in combatting heretics in both Gaul and Britain, he was appointed a bishop by Pope Celestine I, who bestowed the name Patercius or Patritius (father of the people) on him.  Knowing Irish (Gaelic) as well as Latin and his native British language (either Pictish or early “Welsh”) he returned to the land of his former captors and converted the people gently to Christianity. He is said to have died on March 17, 461 in Down Patrick, Ireland.

 

The first Apostle of Christianity in Scotland — then called Caledonia by the Romans (the Scotti had not yet crossed over) — was St. Ninian, a devout and holy Briton known as the Apostle to the Southern Picts (died  A.D. 432). His mission to the southern Picts must have begun toward the end of the fourth century. More famously, in A.D. 563 St. Columba, born in Donegal, Ireland, founded a church on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, which became the center of his evangelizing mission to the northern Picts. (From the Latin picti, the “painted” people of Caledonia —- possibly so called by the Romans for coloring or tattooing their skin and/or for their multi-colored, striped and checked tartan garments). 

 

Also working in the late 6th century in southwestern Scotland was St. Mungo (St. Kentigern) (q.v.), apostle of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founder and patron saint of the city of Glasgow.  In southeastern Scotland and the north of England (then the Kingdom of Northumbria) the revered Christian figure was not a Celt but an Angle —- St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (q.v.), the “wonder-worker” in the 7th  century.  

 

The “northern” upper arm bears two crosses.  Just above the central Jerusalem Cross is the Armenian Cross or Khatchkar (“Stonecross”).  According to tradition, Christianity in Armenia, (in eastern Asia Minor and the mountainous Caucasus region between Europe and Asia) originated in the missions of the Apostles St. Bartholomew (St. Nathanael) and St. Thaddeus (St. Jude) in the first century.  Through the native Armenian St. Gregory the Illuminator, the Kingdom of Armenia became the very first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion under King Tiridates in A.D. 301.  

 

At the top of the “northern” upper arm is the distinctive Russian cross, characteristic of Orthodox Christianity. It was the practice of the Romans to put a sign above the head of a criminal being executed by crucifixion.  This identified the condemned man and his crime. The shorter upper cross- member of the Russian or Orthodox cross represents the title or notice which the Roman prefect or governor, Pontius Pilate, wrote and placed on the Cross at the Crucifixion:

JESUS OF NAZARETH

THE KING OF THE JEWS

 

This was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (see John 19:19 and 20).  The slanted lower cross-member represents the projecting piece of wood to which Jesus’ feet were nailed.  It points upward to the “good thief,” being crucified on Jesus’ right, who acknowledged his crimes and sins, and asked Christ Jesus to remember him in His kingdom  — and whom Christ Jesus therefore granted entrance into Heaven that very day (see Luke 23:39-43).

 

Christianity came to Russia in A.D. 988, when Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kievan Rus’ (q.v.), chose the faith of the Byzantine Rite as the religion for all his people, and decreed that all his subjects be baptized. 


A Cross for All Christians — depicted and described here — is thus itself an ”icon” or image of the early history and spread of Christianity.  As the great English theologian, Dr. John Stott, wrote of the Cross, “One comes to realize that literally all the wealth and glory of the Gospel centers here.   The Cross is the pivot as well as the center of New Testament thought. It is the exclusive mark of the Christian faith, the symbol of Christianity . . . .” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 42-43)

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