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The sign of the cross: What does it really mean?

To explore the meaning of the Christian symbol of the cross (SEAL theme: Empathy).

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore the meaning of the Christian symbol of the cross (SEAL theme: Empathy).

Preparation and materials

  • Choose three readers.


  1. Leader  What is a cross?

    Reader 1  A cross is a simple but beautiful item of jewellery. It’s usually made of either gold or silver and is given as a special gift, often at some significant time of life such as a birthday. Both men and women wear a cross on a chain around their neck, but much of the time it’s concealed beneath their clothing.

    Reader 2  A cross is the gesture made by lots of sportsmen and women as they get ready to compete. Footballers often make the sign of the cross as they come out of the tunnel on to the pitch. Athletes on their starting blocks will similarly be seen to touch their forehead, their shoulders and their chest.

    Reader 3  A cross is a landmark. Right across Europe there are crosses on many of the highest points of ground. Some of these are merely on the top of hills at the sides of valleys, others are on mountain peaks thousands of metres high. Many of these crosses have stood there for centuries, visible from many miles around.
  2. Leader  Each of these descriptions is correct because the cross is a ubiquitous symbol. That means it occurs almost everywhere.

    To many people it’s a sign of good luck. That’s why many sportsmen and women use it. It’s even seen hanging from the rear view mirror in people’s cars, supposedly to protect them from accidents.

    Yet its original meaning is much darker, much more horrific.
  3. Reader 1  The cross was the cruellest, most drawn-out form of execution ever conceived. The Romans chose to use crucifixion as the death sentence for convicted criminals within their own society and within those countries which they invaded.

    To die on a cross took many, many hours, often days. Death wasn’t caused by the nails that fixed the criminal to the cross. The criminal didn’t bleed to death. Death came from suffocation as the weight of the criminal’s body dragged down on the chest and prevented him from expanding his lungs. Time after time the criminal would hoist himself up until exhaustion caused him to sink again.
  4. Reader 2  The cross was a good deterrent as crucifixion was carried out in public. It was impossible to watch a crucifixion without feeling the dread of it happening to you. Even the empty cross left on the hillside was a reminder to the rest of the population of what would happen if they stepped out of line.
  5. Leader  It was on such a cross that Jesus died, the victim of an unjust conviction by a weak Roman governor.

    Christians believe that this death is the most important event in history. The Bible explains that God allowed the event to happen in order to demonstrate the love that he has for human beings. His love is so great that he even allowed his son, Jesus, to be killed in this horrific manner.

    The crucifixion of Jesus, Christians believe, was also in some mystical way a death that successfully challenged the power of evil in the world.
  6. Good Friday, which falls on 29 March this year, is really ‘God’s Friday’ and commemorates that significant crucifixion. In prayer, imagination and meditation, many Christians follow the events of that day as recorded in the Bible, from the trial to the carrying of the cross through the streets of Jerusalem, from the nailing of Jesus to the cross, through the stages of his agonizing torture, to his final death. They spend time thinking through what the death of Jesus on the cross means to them.

    Good Friday is a day for contemplation about what matters most in life.
  7. To get back to my original question: What is a cross?

    It’s a piece of jewellery that reminds us about a turning point in history.

    It’s a symbolic gesture that invites God to be with us in an important venture.

    It’s a landmark that evokes God’s presence looking over his world.

    It’s actually not a pretty sight. It’s a reminder of pain, rather like the scar left after a wound.

    It’s to make us think about that first Easter.

Time for reflection

If you’re a Christian, the cross makes you think about what you believe.

What if you’re not a Christian believer? Does the cross have anything to say to you also?

I think the cross is a reminder about what one man was ready to do for the benefit of others. It’s about the level of sacrifice Jesus made and the example he set. He had the courage to challenge the corrupt status quo, regardless of the consequences. It’s clear that his example had an effect on his followers. They ended up turning the world upside down.

So how brave could you be?

Dear Lord,
thank you for the example of Jesus.
Thank you for his courage, his persistence and his sacrifice.
May I too be willing to sacrifice something for the good of others.


‘Pride (in the name of love)’ by U2

Publication date: March 2013   (Vol.15 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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