Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Contemplations on the Historical Significance of the Cross

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Crucifixion, as a method of punishment, was in use among the Egyptians in the Old Testament, "Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head from you and hang you on a tree and the birds will eat your flesh from you" (Genesis 40:19). The Holy Book of Esther (7:10) reveals that the Carthaginians and Persians also utilized crucifixion to punish their criminals. "So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the kings' wrath subsided." It is commonly known that the Greeks and Romans used crucifixion from the earliest of times. That is why perhaps many scholars believe that the Jews learned the concept of crucifixion from the Romans.

In addition to its being documented in the Old Testament as a painful instrument of death the cross is also documented in the New Testament and in the writings of Church Fathers.

In the New Testament times, in particular, crucifixion was purposefully meant to be a demeaning way in which to die. It was reserved for the vilest of criminal acts, as an emblem of a disparaging slave or servants' death, and a murderers' punishment. Degradation was an added dimension of the cruel infliction. The cross was to all a symbol of the profoundest horror.

There are now thought to be three different forms of crosses used for crucifixion during Biblical times. The first resembled the small letter "t", the second form the capital letter "T", and the third was in the form of an "X".

Most Biblical scholars believe that the cross, which the Lord Jesus Christ suffered upon, was a Latin cross in the form of the small letter "t". The Latin cross, "t", had an upright beam above the cross bar, on which a "title" could be placed. There was a projection from the central stem of the cross, which the body of the sufferer could rest upon. This was not to provide occasional relief from suffering but the purpose of the projection was to prevent the weight of the body from tearing the hands away.

Other scholars refer to the Lord Jesus Christ's Holy Cross as in the form of the capital letter, "T". No one alludes to His cross as being in the form of "X".

Barnabas (c.70-130) writes, "The cross was to express grace by the letter "T".

Victims were flogged and then forced to walk to the site of their impending death dragging the beam of the cross in which they were to be hung on. No one could bear to carry the full weight of the heavy crosses prepared for the purpose of crucifixion. The one to be crucified was also stripped naked of all his clothes to further add to the humiliation. At the designated crucifixion site the victim was nailed through his wrists and ankles to the wooden cross, which they had been forced to drag.

Tertullian (c. 197) writes concerning the Lord Jesus Christ's crucifixion, "He said unto him, 'Pass through the midst of Jerusalem and write the sign of "Tau" on the foreheads of the men who groan and grieve over all the enormities that are done in their midst" (Ezekiel 9:4). Now the mystery of this sign in which the foundation of life was prepared for mankind, was in various ways predicted.

The Greek letter "TAU" is equivalent to the English capital letter "T" which is in the shape of the cross.

Death upon the cross was meant to be mercilessly slow and agonizing. Death by crucifixion usually occurred from suffocation after the crucified became too exhausted to pull himself up in order to breathe. Crucifixion could entail pain, dizziness, abdominal cramps, muscle cramps, thirst, starvation, fever, tetanus, tormenting crowds, and prey attracted to unattended wounds. It has been documented that the consequences of crucifixion could potentially be body rot as a result of the sun and rain or to be devoured by the birds and surrounding countryside's beasts.

With the crown of thorns upon the Lord Jesus Christ's Holy head and a mocking crowd below Him anxious to witness His death,, the humiliation of the Lord Jesus Christ was completed on the Holy Cross.

Besides the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Apostles St. Peter, St. Andrew, St. James the Less, and St. Simon were also crucified.

On the Feast Day of the Discovery of the Holy Cross by Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, underneath amassed accumulated rubble on Golgotha, let us reverently remember the circumstances of our Lord's death and His great and surpassing love for us all.

Let us all take a moment to lift up our eyes toward the Holy Cross in remembrance of St. Helena's finding of the True Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ:

"Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mothers' sister... and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom He loved, He said to His mother, Woman behold your son! Then He said to the disciple, Behold your motherafter this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, I thirstand they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop and put it to His mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said it is finished: and He bowed His head and gave up the spirit upon the Holy Cross" (John 19:22-30).

The cross, as the bearer of the humiliation of the Lord Jesus Christ, remains with us today still bearing the same message as it did the day of the Lord's most Holy death, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (I Corinthians 1:18).

Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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