The Eastern Cross

Q: I was visiting an Orthodox Church, and I have always wondered why their cross has three bars with the bottom one slanted. Do you know?

The cross with which most Roman Catholics are familiar is technically termed the “Latin Cross,” which has the long vertical beam crossed about two-thirds up by a horizontal beam. This type of Cross,” is believed to be the one upon which the Romans crucified our Lord’ nailing His outstretched hands to the ends of the horizontal beam and his feet to the lower portion of the vertical beam.

In the Eastern Rite tradition of our Catholic Church and for the Orthodox Churches, a tradition developed of adding a shorter horizontal beam above the one holding the arms, and at the bottom of the cross, a lower slanted beam. This type of cross is commonly called the “Eastern Cross.”

The smaller upper beam represents Pontius Pilate’s inscription written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew: Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews (John 19:19). In Latin, the inscription reads, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” which is simply reduced to “INRI” on most replicas.

The lower beam represents the footrest upon which our Lord’s feet were nailed. Several traditions exist which explain the slanting. In the sixth century, the slanted beam symbolized the agony and struggle of our Lord during His suffering on the cross. The Gospel of St. Matthew reads, “Once again Jesus cried out in a loud voice, and then gave up His spirit. Suddenly the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, boulders split, tombs opened” (Matthew 27:50-52). At the traumatic climax when He gave up His spirit, the horizontal beam jerked from its horizontal position to the slanting position.

A tradition arising around the 11th century holds that the slanting beam symbolized the balance between the good thief and the bad thief: the good thief, known as St. Dismas, found salvation at the last moment of his life and would be raised up to Heaven, while the bad thief, cursing God in his last breath, would be thrust downward to Hell.

Another explanation for the slanted beam is that the cross is a combination of the Latin cross with the cross of St. Andrew. After Pentecost, St. Andrew evangelized the area of Asia Minor. One story recounts that he journeyed up the Dnieper River, planted a cross on a hill, and prophesied that one day there would be a great city, a center of Christianity. This city would one day be Kiev. Tradition also records that St. Andrew was martyred on an X-shaped cross on November 30, A.D. 60 during the reign of Emperor Nero at Patrae in Achaia in Greece.

When St. Vladimir converted to Christianity in 989, Kiev became the center of Christianity for the Slavic and Russian peoples, and St. Andrew was highly venerated. After the Schism of 1054 resulting from the political struggle and mutual excommunication between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Church in Russia eventually severed ties with Rome and became the Russian Orthodox Church. With the Mongol invasions beginning in the latter 1200s, the See of Kiev was abandoned and moved to Moscow, and Bishop Alexis (1354-89) adopted the title, “Metropolitan of Kiev and all of Russia.”

At this time, the Russian Orthodox Church officially adopted St. Andrew as its patron saint. Therefore, St. Andrew’s X-shaped cross, depicted by the slanted beam, was incorporated into the cross of our Lord, the traditional Latin cross. Moreover, political overtones motivated the incorporation: According to the Gospel of St. John, St. Andrew was the first to find the Messiah and then informed his brother Simon Peter (John 1:40-42); therefore, from a political perspective, the Bishop of Moscow under the patronage of St. Andrew claimed some preeminence over the Bishop of Rome under the patronage of St. Peter. Also, the distinctive cross with the upper beam and the slanted lower beam distinguished Orthodox Christianity from Roman Catholicism.

In all, whether we reverence the traditional Latin cross or the Eastern cross, we remember the sacrifice our Lord endured for our salvation, and we pray, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.


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Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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