I learned something today in mass about the cross that, in all my years of being Catholic, had never heard before. A special presentation on stewardship mentioned the idea that the vertical portion of a cross symbolizes our connection to God in heaven while the horizontal part symbolizes our relationship with others. In other words, we focus on God above while reaching out to others.
Love it. Blogging it.
Ironically I also learned something else about the cross this past week that I’d never heard. Many believe the popular and traditional style of a “six panel door” gets its distinct look courtesy of a cross and an open bible. Originating back in the 1700s, the door’s top four panels represent a cross while the bottom two represent an open bible. Reading this, I knew I had to look further into it.
Sure enough, I ran across an article on the “Historic House Blog” that explained this legend.
Apparently during the Georgian period in America, a new door was designed using a frame and panels. The door, today called a “six panel door,” is still the most popular style of door in the country. These doors generally consist of two vertical stiles running the length of the door and are connected by horizontal rails. The frame is then filled with “floating” panels that fit into the grooves of the stiles and rails. Dealing with the menacing issue of wood swelling and leaking, 1700 engineers designed this door to minimize swelling and shrinking and increase security and durability. In a word, it was brilliant.
The entry and exit masterpiece is also sometimes called a “Cross and Bible door” or a “Christian Door” because if you look at one you can see how the framing of the door’s upper portion can outline a cross while the lower two panels could be envisioned as an open bible. Not everyone buys into this folklore, but I love six panel doors, I love Georgian and Federal architecture, and I love the cross and the bible so I’m a believer!
The cross is probably the most powerful symbol in all of Christianity. We see them in our churches, on top of our churches, on the backs of our cars, and in the jewelry and clothing we wear. An unadorned cross is common in all Christian faiths, but the crucifix is quintessentially Catholic.
A crucifix is not meant to be pretty. They are painful to look at but they are meant to remind us of the suffering Jesus did for us. I personally love the “Risen Christ” cross my parish has above the altar but it is definitely not the norm. In addition, all Catholic parishes worldwide depict the Stations of the Cross inside and often outside of the church. But why; why a cross?
First of all the cross symbolizes suffering; the suffering Jesus endured for us. By “taking up the cross,” we surrender our wants and needs to God, accept our burdens with faith, and we show reverence for what our Lord did on our behalf. He died for us. We can certainly humbly withstand our sufferings in His name.
In the same vein, the cross symbolizes death; a death we are encouraged not to gloss over or hide. It is our hope that when we die, we will be raised by the cross and live eternally in heaven.
Of course, the cross is also about hope and life. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead after dying on the cross, giving us hope and giving us strength.
Practicing Christians should identify with the cross. It is our calling to live as Christ did and by church doctrines. It is our faith, our identity, and our symbol to the world that we are followers of Christ. By professing this faith, our words and our actions should be guided by the cross.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
But why on earth are Catholics forever making the Sign of the Cross? I grew up doing so not only before and after praying and during mass, but also when I drive past a Catholic church or when I hear a siren.
Making the Sign of the Cross may be the most common of all Catholic actions and is done often. We do it when we pray, when we enter and exit a church, and all during mass. It is a way of professing our belief in the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By marking our bodies with it, we mark ourselves as Christians, proclaim our discipleship, and declare that we truly belong to Christ. It’s important to note that the Sign of the Cross is not simply an action but a prayer itself.
The Sign of the Cross is also sacramental, as it is used in baptism and links us forever to the body of Christ. But, it is not unique to Catholics, as many would have you believe. Used by Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians during baptisms and other ceremonies, the sign was even encouraged by Martin Luther who recommended doing so first thing in the morning and at bedtime. In addition, Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, employ the practice, albeit in reverse the order, touching their right shoulder on the word “Holy” and their left shoulder on the word “Spirit.”
Lastly, during a Catholic mass, an ancient Jewish tradition is performed. Parishioners often make three little cross symbols on their forehead, their mouth, and their chest right before the gospel is read. This comes from the Jewish custom of honoring scripture that says, “May the word of the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.” It’s one of my favorites.
“At the foot of the cross, we are all equal.”
Catholics also put it into practice before, during, and after all masses. As we enter a church, using holy water to make the Sign of the Cross declares that we are baptized, ready, and willing to participate in the miracle of the mass and doing so upon leaving mass says you will take the mass with you as you go about your day.
It’s not unique to places of worship. Who hasn’t seen an athlete cross him or herself before or after a competition or witnessed it time after time in movies? It is holy and it is cultural.
So the next time you see a cross, think about what it really means. Yes it means “I’m a Christian!” but it means so much more. You may never look at a door the same way.