The Sign of the Cross
What does it really mean?
by Brian Radcliffe (revised, originally published in 2012)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore the meaning of the Christian symbol of the cross.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and three readers, who will need time to rehearse prior to the assembly.
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 a 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 also the gesture made by some sports competitors as they get ready to compete. Footballers might make the sign of the cross as they come out of the tunnel onto the pitch. Similarly, athletes on their starting blocks might be seen to touch their forehead, shoulders and chest.
Reader 3: A cross is a landmark too. There are crosses on many of the highest points of ground. Some of these are on the tops of hills next to valleys, whereas others are on mountain peaks that soar thousands of metres into the sky. Many of these crosses have stood there for centuries, visible from many miles around.
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 sportspeople use it. Some people even have crosses hanging from the rearview mirror in their cars, supposedly to protect them from accidents.
However, the cross has another meaning, one that Christians particularly focus upon at Easter.
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 in their own society and the countries that they invaded.
To die on a cross took many hours, often days. Death wasn’t caused by the nails that fixed the criminal to the cross, rather from suffocation as the weight of the criminal’s body dragged down on the chest and prevented the person from expanding their lungs. The criminals would hoist themselves up until exhaustion caused them to sink again.
Reader 2: The cross was an effective deterrent because 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.
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 so that he could 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.
Good Friday, which falls on 2 April 2021, is really ‘God’s Friday’ and commemorates Jesus’ death on the cross. 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, to the nailing of Jesus to the cross, all the way through to his final death. They spend time reflecting on what the death of Jesus on the cross means to them.
Good Friday is a day for contemplation about what matters most in life.
So, 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 makes us think about that first Easter.
Time for reflection
The cross reminds us what one man was ready to do for the benefit of others. It’s about the level of sacrifice that Jesus made and the example that 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.
Christians believe that Jesus’ death on a cross changed the world. However, this wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t a wonderful end to the Easter story. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive today!
Thank you for the example of Jesus.
Thank you for his courage, persistence and sacrifice.
May I too be willing to sacrifice something for the good of others.
Thank you that the cross is not the end of the story.
Thank you that Jesus is alive!
‘Sign your cross’ by Nick and Becky Drake, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWiP6jEUl8Y (4.16 minutes long)
‘Pride (in the name of love)’ by U2, available at: https://youtu.be/LHcP4MWABGY (4.06 minutes long)