By Fr. John Brian Paprock
On top of the altar, like on the hill outside Jerusalem, stands the cross. Through it, there is eternal life in spite of death, comfort despite suffering, light in darkness, hope in despair, mercy at the hands of the merciless. As the lightning flash in the East (Matthew 24:27) that will herald the return of Christ to this world, an Orthodox Christian looks to it, faces it and bows before it as a symbol of God’s presence in this world and the gateway to the next. All Orthodox altars are intended to face East and have shining metal crosses to reflect light as real anticipation of the fulfillment of all spiritual promises.
That symbol, as the sign, the landmark, the lighthouse for the spiritual journey, is carried to the highest pinnacle of the church building, declaring a piece of heaven is here on earth. Faithful Christians, even if strangers to a land, can find their way with the cross on the horizon. Even if there is a distance between the cross on the very top of a church building and the altar or there is no cross to be seen outside the church, it is the cross on the altar that is always present. In fact, it is the oldest known continuous ornament of the altar. During the iconoclasm periods of fanatic heretics and fundamentalist Muslims, when the icons of the Lord, Holy Mary Theotokos, the Saints and the stories were often destroyed and obliterated, the cross alone was allowed. It became an ornate alternative to icons as the love of craftsman sought to embellish with all the love of their faith. Local variations of craftsmanship became regional voices of enduring faith.
The cross on the altar is focus point of the church. From that altar, blessings of mercy and grace come to the faithful. This is seen when the cross is brought out at special festivals and for special blessings. The altar cross, or an ornate surrogate, leads processions. Priests often carry smaller crosses in the open, portable versions of the same cross, as each carries in their hands a surrogate of the altar itself. From the altar, the priest* – as the bridge to the people – brings all the grace and mercy.
The Eucharist is the principal blessing, but there are other blessings and helps for the Christian journey of this earthly life. The most elegant and pervasive is the blessing of peace. From the altar prayers, the priest, whose hands have been used by the loving God in His Holy Mysteries, turns to the people and blesses with the cross. The sign of the cross is made in the air before all the people and vibrates through the air to all the people. “Peace to all,” he sings the same blessing of Jesus to the apostles, emulating the call to follow Him. The people take this blessing upon themselves by signing the cross upon heads and hearts, bowing to the source of the blessing. Being mindful of the humanness of the priest, they respond in encouragement, “and with your spirit.” Other blessings with the cross come at the opening of the services, declarations of the Holy Trinity and at dismissal benedictions.
In many Orthodox churches, the blessings from the altar can be made with just the hand of the priest, held in a particular manner. As an extension of the hand, a blessing cross is often used. Regional and cultural differences have lead to variations, but the practice is essentially the same.
In Holy Orthodoxy, the people join in the prayers by hearing his voice at the altar itself, but also when the blessings are brought forth. The sign of the cross made by the faithful with a bow or prostration indicates a reception of the blessings in humility and piety. So when the censer brings the fragrance of prayers going to heaven and the smoke comes in the people’s direction, a cross. When the Bible is brought out to the people for the public reading of scriptures, a cross. When the Eucharistic gifts are consecrated, a cross. When they are brought out to the people, a cross. When lighting a candle, a cross.
The cross became a constant companion in mind and heart, taken home in symbol as a token of the altar cross – not a replacement. Some sought its help during hardship, slavery and martyrdom when they were prevented from attending the altar. Soon, the cross was taken everywhere the faithful would go and it was incorporated into every craft, every fashion, every home – in the walls, in the tapestry, in the gardens, around the neck when working, in the pocket when traveling, on the pillow when sleeping.
When a cross could not be carried or woven into the fabric of persecuted lives, it was signed. The sign of the cross is still made whenever approaching something of God in this world – or whenever God seems to draw near to the faithful. Making the sign of the cross upon one’s body is taking up the cross and following Christ. It is the affirmation of the baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the cross.
Among the persecutions, it was noticed that the cross – a mechanism of Roman cruelty – was held in such reverence and piety. Persecutors would mock this devotion by forcibly removing it or, with even greater cruelty, making it part of the torturing and tormenting. In some areas, wearing the cross or making the sign of the cross identified a person a Christian, which meant lower pay and greater taxes in addition to the physical abuse permitted and often encouraged by local authorities. In this, Egypt has been the most notorious.
In Egypt, it was required for Christians to walk in the cities clearly identified with heavy stone crosses around their necks as a mockery of the devotion to the cross and also to ensure that Christians were always bowing to their Muslim and pagan superiors. When Christians revolted to this practice, they were tattooed with the cross against their will and against the traditions of Jewish and Christian teachings. On the wrist, the tattoo became a quick mechanism for identification for authorities and businessmen. Much later, it became a symbol of piety and endurance, of joining with the martyrs. So Orthodox Christians still get tattoos on their wrists as part of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Sepulcher of the Holy Cross – to the very place where the altar of saving mercy and grace was founded at the feet of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is a symbolic manner to join the martyrs. It also has helped identify someone as Christian for proper burial where the majority would bury according to their customs.
Every altar in Holy Orthodoxy is connected. Every one is a reflection, however poorly or ornate, of the heavenly altar where all sacrifices are received, all prayers are heard, and all devotions are seen. The altar is that reflection as in mirror pieces where the fullness can be seen in even the smallest fragment. There is no altar in Holy Orthodoxy without the cross. There is no altar in Holy Orthodoxy without the Holy Mysteries, especially Eucharistic activity. The priest carries the altar with him, in hands and by extension a hand or blessing cross. The altar and everything that is used on it or near it is sanctified – that is, separated and blessed for that particular use and function in the life of the church. By tradition, the priest, in the line of the Holy Apostles which followed Christ in His earthly ministry, is also separated and blessed for this purpose. This makes the priest and the altar inseparable in a spiritual sense.
When the faithful encounter the priest, they see the altar and seek its blessing. When they kiss the hand, they kiss the hand that has been the conduit of the Holy Mysteries, holding the very body and blood of Christ. When they bow and touch their head and lips to the cross in his hand, they are momentarily transported to the altar where that cross stands sentinel. When the priest visits a home, he blesses the home with the sign of the cross. In fact, every blessing of the priest is done with the sign of the cross. Even when holy water, incense, oil, or any other holy instrument is used, the priest blesses with the sign of the cross – in continuity of the Holy Altar.
In Holy Orthodoxy, there is no separation desired. The church and the altar are intended to bring the faithful into the presence of God, to experience heaven while on earth, to encounter all of the mercy and grace of the spiritual life. As much as possible, the pious and devout Orthodox faithful desire to live in the church; but as that is often not possible, then they wish to to carry the altar experience with them everywhere they go. In images, in memory, in prayers, in candles, in incense, in crosses – a portion of the altar is with them, but it is not complete.
None of these are a replacement for the altar. Prayers at home are not a replacement for the sacred and divine liturgy. Eating bread at a meal is not a replacement for Holy Communion. A cross is not a replacement for the altar. Holding a cross is not replacement for the blessing of a priest.
The faithful and devout in Holy Orthodoxy know the truth of form and function. Because they have been in the presence of the Truth, the Light and the Life of Christ and they have experienced that holy and divine reality of spiritual nurturance, they know in their hearts the truth and have no need of these explanations. However, so that those that have fallen away or those that have forgotten, these words are offered in conciliation of these modern times. All that is of the truth in this article belongs to God – all errors are the author’s – please pray for him.
Peace be with you all in the name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Living Spirit +
[*Please note: The word “priest” is being used to include Bishops and all ordained to serve at the altar for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries. It is being used over “clergy” to avoid some confusion and to emphasize the role of “bridge” which is a literal understanding of the word’s origins. Technically and unequivocally, there are no priests without the consent and blessing of the bishops, who are the continuation of the Apostolic life for all Holy Orthodox Churches. Priests have that same charisma, but not in fullness as the bishops. This is demonstrated by the Holy Mystery of Ordination which can only be conducted by a bishop.]
Source: This article is written from extensive research for the upcoming book “The Cross in the East” by Fr. John Brian
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