My daughter was telling me about her camp experience last year and explained that they had a session when campers could ask theological questions to a priest. Another priest took his own turn and asked, “if Jesus was shot instead of crucified, would we wear a bullet or gun around our necks instead of a cross?” I assume he was being provocative, but I don’t know for sure. But since he, and maybe others, considered it long enough to ask, maybe it is worth addressing. I asked my daughter what the other expert’s answer was. She said the response was overly long and vague, so she didn’t get a clear understanding of the answer. I am no expert, and will not do the subject justice. But since I am a lay person, maybe my attempt at explaining will be easier to grasp. In so doing, I want to just reflect on the symbology of wearing the cross in the first place.
My understanding of the cross includes a few elements. The Christian view of the Old Testament is as a foreshadowing of Christ. Our Faith includes many symbols. Most of the sacraments have a great deal of symbolic representation. For example, we have saving food, The Eucharist, saving waters, Baptism, and also a saving tree, the Cross. Man fell out of union with God by eating the fruit of a forbidden tree. We were restored to union with God through a tree. This draws a very strong correlation about God’s plan for our salvation. This gives us a very intimate relationship with this symbol.
We find prototypes of the Cross in the Old Testament. The Patriarch Jacob blessed Joseph’s children Ephraim and Manasseh crosswise (Genesis, chapter 48). Moses used his staff to make the sign of the Cross on the waves of the Red Sea (Exodus, chapter 14).
Many Jews assumed that the anointed one would come as an earthly conqueror who would use traditional weapons to conquer other kingdoms and set up his own earthly kingdom. Jesus had plans far greater than we could have imagined. His Kingdom is so much greater than anything our minds could fathom. He did not come to train physical warriors, but spiritual ones. Our spiritual warfare includes the virtue of temperance, patience, humility, and love. Christ expressed all of these when He allowed Himself to be crucified. He could have called down legions of angels (Matt 26:53). The cross represented the most humiliating fashion of execution by the Romans. “Cursed is he who hangs from a tree.” (Duet 21:23, Gal 3:13). Christ humbled himself and allowed his persecutors to execute him in the most humiliating, cursed way.
So the cross is not simply a method by which Jesus was slain, it is a symbol of how He is restoring our natural relationship with Him, as well as an example of His humility. Our weapon is a weapon of strength through the virtues of humility, patience, and love. Through those weapons, we will conquer.
The Cross is also the banner of military victory. When the Amalekites attacked the Hebrews after their exodus out of Egypt, Moses, supported by the priests, prayed with arms extended in the form of a Cross, and the Amalekites were defeated (Exodus 16: 11). St. Cyprian of Carthage explains that the Israelites were victorious because the cruciform stretching out of the arms was a prototype of the Cross of Christ. The clearest evidence of the victorious power of the Cross of Christ was demonstrated in Emperor Constantine the Great’s seeing a brilliantly shining Cross in a clear, cloudless sky, and hearing the words “In this [sign] you shall conquer.”
“The Cross is a great, invincible weapon that conquers all. However, one needs to know how to use that weapon, that power. For even an ordinary weapon, a firearm or other weapon, can be an impotent one in the hands of someone inexperienced, and can even be a danger to the one who wields it. The invincible and almighty power of the Cross becomes so, and is conditional upon faith and piety. One cannot use the power of the Cross, one cannot utilize it as a weapon in the absence of faith and piety, for it is a weapon of the Holy Truth of Christ. One must not make the sign of the Cross over oneself or others without faith and piety.” (Book about the Cross)
The Cross also grants healing. In the Old Testament, the bronze serpent, which prefigured the Cross, healed all those who had been bitten by the deadly serpents sent by God as punishment for the Hebrews’ complaining. If a prototype of the Cross held such healing power, how much more powerfully does the Cross of Christ itself heal! From ancient times and still today, the Orthodox Church has considered the Cross a great defense against all disease, whether physical or spiritual. This is why since antiquity, Christians have worn the Cross on their breast. To wear such a Cross was considered to be: 1) a confession that you were a Christian, and 2) a defense, “to ward off any evil.” Even today, one often sees written on Crosses to be worn on the breast, the words, “O Lord, Save and Protect [me]!” When a priest blesses such a Cross, he prays that it might be “for him that shall bear it on himself may it be for a saving defense and preservation against every evil of soul and body and for the increase of increase him of Thy spiritual gifts and Christian virtues” and that it might be filled with “Thy power and strength for the repulsion and dispelling of every snare of the devil,” and be “the preservation of soul and body from the face of enemies visible and invisible and from every evil.” (Supplemental Book of Needs).
So, this is why we wear a cross atop our breast. It is hard to imagine any other symbol that could have held such depth of meaning. Let us join St. Gregory of Sinai in the following prayer as we proudly wear the cross as our breastplate, “O cross! Be unto me the might, the strength and the power, the deliverer and foremost defender against my assailants, the shield and protector, my victory and establishment, ever preserving and sheltering me.” “O Cross … as a three-edged sword thou dost cut off the principles of darkness, being the great weapon of Christ and an invincible and all-powerful trophy of victory…” For the Cross is “the symbol of the Incomprehensible Trinity, the Life-bearer.”