These days known to Christians as Holy Week lead to a commemoration of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of the Christian Cross is a particular focus of attention.
The sign of the cross is perhaps about as universal a symbol as can be found throughout human history. The simple crossing of two lines at right angles can be traced to the earliest periods of human civilization, both as a work of art and as a religious symbol.
The recognition of this symbol begins with nature itself. Walking in a natural setting, one is struck by how often fallen sticks or plant patterns form a cross. The cross in the dogwood flower is well recognized. One summer driving to Flagstaff I stopped and took a photo of a tree struck by lightning. It had been blasted into the shape of a cross. When one looks at the sun or at stars through haze, their light often forms a cross in the sky. Also, a cross-like pattern is visible in the sun's corona during solar eclipses.
It was inevitable for the cross to become the religious symbol for sun-worshippers from earliest times. Crosses in petroglyphs from as early as 2500 B.C. have been found and are interpreted as representing the Sun or Sky-deity. They are in two forms: + and X. In ancient Chaldea or Babylon (Iraq today), the cross was used as an emblem for the pagan sun god Tammuz. In Babylon, headbands were worn covered with the design of the cross. The ancient Egyptians also used this cross as a symbol for the sun god. As early as the 15th century B.C., Egyptians were wearing the cross symbol on a necklace. For ancient astrologers, an encircled cross became known as "a solar wheel."
The sign of the cross was used in many ways by different civilizations throughout history. The Egyptian ANKH symbol, which roughly images a form of the cross, is in fact the shape of ancient latchkeys. This simple key was able to open a door latched from the inside. Opening a door readily became the symbol for proceeding to life after death, and so the latchkey became the symbol in Egypt for a key to the afterlife. It is not to be seen as a form of cross symbolism.
Another ancient form of the cross is the swastika, its crossbar representing the sun's rays, and the points representing the four sacred directions.
For Native Americans, the symbol seemed to originate from weaving. The warp and weft of woven baskets or blankets produce all sorts of stars, swastikas, and whirlwind designs. The swastika is not only a Southwest Indian design, but it seems to be found universally. In basket weaving, it results when the ends of a simple cross design are turned either right or left, depending on the direction of the weaving.
Another familiar form of the cross is the German Iron Cross. It was a military decoration originating during the Napoleonic Wars. Hitler renewed the use of the Iron Cross in 1939, and superimposed the Nazi swastika at its center. It became prohibited in post-war Germany, but was taken up by neo-Nazi hate groups.
The cross as a Christian symbol has an interesting history. The first emperor of Rome to profess the Christian faith was Constantine, and he used as an emblem the Cross superimposed on the sun. Historians say Constantine was a worshiper of the sun, and probably took this symbol from the Babylonian sun god Tammuz, which he had encountered during his conquests in the East. He claimed to have a vision of this symbol in the year 314 A.D., and after that the Roman coins often carried it. Constantine used the symbol as a rallying sign to motivate his troops rather than as a symbol of devotion to Jesus Christ. In this way, both pagans and Christians among his troops were united by a common symbol for their ideas of God. He issued an edict in 321 A.D. that Sunday was to be kept as the holy day and stated in the edict it was because that was the "venerable day of the Sun."
Constantine's army also developed another version of the cross, which later Christians named the Chi-Rho, representing the first two letters of the name Christos. Constantine also adopted this emblem as an imperial ensign.
The symbol of the cross was later introduced into the church primarily because of Constantine. However, it has endeared itself to Christians everywhere, and is so powerful a symbol that it represents the Christian faith for most people who believe in Jesus Christ.
The cross is not to be looked upon superstitiously, as though wearing one or worshipping before it brings "good luck" or has magical powers in itself. The symbolism it carries for Christians is that "Christ died for our sins," a phrase that takes most of us a lifetime to fully appreciate and understand.
For many Christians the empty Cross, rather than the crucifix, proclaims the resurrection of Jesus and the power of God to overcome death. The Cross has come to symbolize the essence of the Christian way of life, that is the giving of one's life for others in self-sacrifice. Christians wear the cross not only to proclaim their faith, but also the mission Jesus gave them. He said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34)
Throughout the New Testament the term "the cross" is seldom used to refer to the actual means of Christ's crucifixion. More often it refers to the meaning of Jesus' sacrificial death, the unconditional love of God for his children, and the way of life prescribed for the faithful. In other words, the use of the cross both in teaching and in art brings together several fundamental Christian concepts in powerful symbolic form. In many of our churches a hymn is sung with this chorus: "Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, Till all the world adore his scared name."
Obviously, most Christian congregations of Payson seek to do just that as they "lift high the cross."