Veneration of the Cross

Veneration of the Cross

Creeping to the Cross

Many Roman Catholic churches practice a devotion known as the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. The clergy and congregation approach a cross or crucifix one by one, and offer a gesture of respect to all that it represents. This gesture usually includes kneeling or bowing before the cross and then kissing it. In medieval England and Germany people expressed their humility before Jesus' suffering and sacrificial death by approaching the cross on their hands and knees. This practice may have inspired an old folk name for the ceremony: "Creeping to the Cross" (for a similar custom practiced by Eastern Christians, see Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross and Epitaphios).

The Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday can be traced back to fourth-century Jerusalem. The diary of Egeria, a Spanish nun who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the late fourth century, records that Jerusalem Christians attended this ceremony on Good Friday. During church services the local bishop presented worshipers with what was believed to be the true cross, that is, the actual wooden cross upon which Jesus was crucified (see also Tree of the Cross; for more on crucifixion, see Cross). The congregation then came forward one by one to bow before this sacred relic, touch it to their eyes and forehead, and to kiss it. Religious officials supervised the ceremony closely, for fear that under the cover of kissing the cross pilgrims would take a bite out of it, thereby securing a valuable souvenir of their trip to the Holy Land.

According to legend, St. Helena (c. 248-c. 328) discovered the true cross in 326. Soon afterwards Christian leaders in Rome sought and obtained a fragment of this holy relic, which they housed in the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Along with the relic came the Jerusalem community's ceremony of the Veneration of the Cross. From Rome the ceremony spread throughout Europe. It was known in England in the late tenth century, when Aelfric, archbishop of Canterbury, urged Christians to "greet God's cross with a kiss" in observance of Good Friday.

The Veneration of the Cross flourished throughout medieval Europe. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, various Christian leaders began to criticize the practice. These leaders spearheaded the Reformation, a religious reform movement which swept across western Europe giving birth to Protestant Christianity. In general, Protestants abandoned the Veneration of the Cross. Roman Catholics, however, maintained the practice.

In today's Roman Catholic rite the priest solemnly unveils a crucifix in three stages, or carries it to the altar in a procession divided up into three stages (see also Veiling). There he holds it up before the congregation declaring, "This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world." The assembled parishioners reply, "Come, let us worship." The priest then genuflects - bends one knee down or touches the knee to the floor - before the crucifix, and kisses Jesus' feet. The congregation follows behind the priest, one by one approaching the crucifix and reverencing it in the same fashion.

Further Reading

Chirat, H. "Cross, Finding of the Holy." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 4. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. "Veneration of the Cross." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
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