The Processional Cross
By Father Wade Miller
Oftentimes well-meaning Christians are a bit taken back by having a processional cross in worship. The mandate against the worship of images primarily from the Second of the Ten Commandments is a legitimate concern. That concern, however, is alleviated once we understand how the church has interpreted and applied this commandment throughout the ages, especially in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (A.D. 787), to which our Anglican church submits. In that ecumenical council of the Church, it allows and encourages the use of images and icons as aids in the worship of God.
In Colossians 1:15, we read: “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” The word image is “icon.” We read in John 14:9, “Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” The point is that God has appeared in human flesh in the person of Jesus, who is truly and fully man. This doctrine is called the Incarnation. In other words, God became visible in the man Jesus, who is also fully God.
The prohibition against images in the Old Testament had to do with worship. Only God the Creator is worthy of our worship. The worship of anything or anyone in the place of God is idolatry, and strictly forbidden. This means that for us today, it certainly includes putting our trust in money, security, family, friends, leisure, etc., above our faith in the Lord. Our true faith and trust is revealed in our everyday commitments and priorities.
In Numbers 21:4-9 we read how the children of Israel had acted in disobedience to their Creator. The Lord sent fiery serpents (poisonous snakes) that were unleashed to strike the people. The Lord’s compassion was poured upon the people as He instructed Moses to put a serpent made of bronze upon a pole. As the people looked to that bronze serpent, they would be healed from the deadly venom.
But didn’t God forbid sacred images? Yes, He did, but again, it was the worship of such images that was forbidden, not images themselves. If all imagery is evil, then God would not have chosen to make a physical and visible world at all. The point of this account in Numbers 21, and the lesson it provides is that the thing that could kill (the fiery serpent) is also the thing by which the people would be saved (that bronze and fiery looking serpent placed upon a pole).
Fast forward now to John chapter 3:14-17. We read, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
In this text from John chapter 3, we read how Numbers 21 looks forward to Jesus, who is now the One who was hung upon the cross for the life of the whole world. All who look to Jesus Christ in faith will have eternal life. As the ancient church used to sing, and our Orthodox brothers and sisters still chant at Easter, “Christ has risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon Death, and has given life to those who are in the tombs.”
Therefore, the Church has used objects like a processional cross as an aid in worship. The cross is not only a symbol of death, like the bronze serpent of Numbers 21; it has been transformed into an image of life! It has been, therefore, the practice of the church to have a gold or silver crucifix on a pole to magnify this truth. As Christians, we begin with the cross leading us into the worship of God because we now enter solely into His presence through the death and the life that has been bestowed upon us by way of the holy cross of Jesus.
Considering this profound truth, may we lift high that holy cross in the joy and thanksgiving for our great Redeemer. Jesus Christ is the One who leads us in worship, and then sends us back out into the world to live sacrificial lives of taking up our cross and following Him.