Today, we dedicate the processional cross which was recently purchased for use at St. John’s. Though it is a relatively new thing here at St. John’s, there is a long history of use of processional crosses in general, and specifically in Lutheran churches.
The use of the cross as a symbol of Jesus is ancient. The symbol itself is found even before Jesus, as the use of the cross as a device for torture and death existed before Jesus was born. It has been considered the most brutal form of capital punishment routinely used by any government. That may explain why it was in use at the time that Jesus came—He would die the worst death imaginable.
At first, Christians did not seem to use the cross to identify themselves or Jesus. According to some scholars, the fish was the first widely used symbol (more on this another time). But by the early third century, the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian mention people making the “sign of the cross” to represent Jesus1. Constantine the Great (272 – 337AD) was reportedly responsible for the cross becoming the chief symbol of Christ and Christianity when he converted and began the process of making Christianity the official religion of the empire.
St. Augustine reportedly carried “a silver cross for a standard” during the liturgy, according to Bede (a historian who lived in the following century)2. This might have been the first recorded form of a processional cross. Later, through the Middle Ages, crosses attached to a handle became more widely used. By the time of the Reformation, such crosses were commonly found in most churches, used in various celebrations or set as a reminder of the object of our faith.
In Lutheran churches, crosses have been used “bare” or with a sculpted representation of Christ attached (a “crucifix”). During the Reformation, churches that became Lutheran would still more likely use a crucifix than a bare cross, as the body of Christ on the cross was thought to most directly relate to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “but we preach Christ crucified.” The bare cross has been preferred by some churches as emphasizing the resurrection, since Christ is no longer on the cross. Either is acceptable for use in private devotion and worship.3
The processional cross will soon receive a better stand, where it will remain in church as a constant reminder of Jesus’ death for our sins. It will generally be located near the pulpit, that you may reflect visually on a symbol of Christ even while you hear the preaching of Christ crucified.
3 Article by Paul McCain, referenced in source 2.