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April 4, 2021

The Apostolic Tradition of Venerating the Holy Cross (St. Nektarios of Aegina)

Detail of the Sarcophagus of Domatilla: Symbolic Representation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection (Mid-4th century, Museo Pio Christiano, Rome)

By St. Nektarios of Aegina

Great  was  the  veneration  of  the  Lord's  Life-giving  Cross  by  the  faithful directly from the beginning. The Apostle Paul commends the sign of the Cross to the  faithful  as  the  power  of  God,  declaring: "For  the  message  of  the  Cross  is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the  power  of  God"  (1 Cor.  1:18).  Faithfully  preserving  the  Apostolic  teaching, Christians  revered  the  sign  and  image  of  the Honorable  Cross,  believing  in  its redemptive  and  life-giving  power. The  depiction  and  sign  of  the  Cross  was attested  to,  and  was  for  them  an  unconquerable  weapon  against  the  attacks  of visible  and  invisible  enemies. From  that  time,  and  from  the  first  centuries  of  the Church, particular reverence and honor were rendered to it.

The  most  ancient  fathers  of  the  Church  maintained  the  Apostolic  tradition of veneration and reverence for the Honorable Cross. Tertullian, who lived during the second and third centuries († 245 AD), attests that the sign of the Cross was in  use  by  Christians during every facet of their life — even  when they  performed the  most  insignificant  tasks,  such  as  when  they  arose  from  bed,  when  they dressed  themselves,  when  they  went  to  sleep,  when  they  ventured  out  of  their homes, and  when  they  lit  their  lamps. Furthermore,  when  they  sat  at  the  table, they  would  bless  both  themselves  and  their  food  with  the  sign  of  the Honorable Cross. In short, the sign of the Honorable  Cross  was  the  beginning  and  the forerunner of every undertaking.

St. Ignatius  the  God-bearer († 107 AD) writes, "The  prince  of  this  world rejoices when anyone denies the Cross, since he knows the confession  of  the Cross is his demise. The Cross is the trophy that has been raised up against the devil’s power. When he sees it, he shudders, and when he hears of it, he fears."

Addressing the pagans who believed that Christians worshiped the Cross, as it was customary for them to think, St. Ambrose († 397 AD) explains: "When Christians venerate  the  Cross,  it  is  not  the  wood  they  are  worshiping  but  Christ  Who  died upon the Cross."

Christians of the first centuries portrayed the crucifixion of Christ the Savior through  symbolic  monograms. Archaeologists  attribute  these  monograms  to  the first  century,  and  to  the  same  period  during  which  the  faithful  of  Antioch  called themselves  Christians — long  before  the  empire  of  Constantine  the  Great. Therefore, the theory of certain innovators that the honor rendered to the Lord's Honorable  Cross  and  to  its  image  was  first  brought to light  by  Constantine the Great is terribly  mistaken. Constantine  the  Great  found the  Honorable  Cross  to  be in common use throughout the Church from the most ancient times. As a result, he honored its sign, and raised the Cross as the symbol of his new Christian empire after it was revealed to him.