Theology

What forms of the cross are best for a worship space chancel?

Diagrams of various crosses

Most any form of the cross is relevant. However, the proportions of the traditional Latin cross with three arms of equal length and an elongated lower stem have been overused, thus exhausting its symbolic force. Breaking its standard formula with elongated horizontal arms and high intersection on the post, for example, is a desirable elaboration. The Latin cross with its standard measurements does not correspond to the dimensions of the human figure — Leonardo’s da Vinci clarified for us these proportions of the human body long ago — whereas the disproportional Latin cross with a short upper stem and long horizontal arms alludes to a suffering body placed against it.

The Latin cross is a symbol of torture. The Latin cross can appear misused with glimmering jewels, burnished filigree, or arranged flowers superficially affixed to it. However, in worship space, additional, colorful elements, judiciously placed upon a central Latin cross, can be satisfying if there is significance and purpose for their inclusion. Indeed, the odious Latin cross has become an object of celebration in the Christian Church.

The Crucifix, a cross with a corpus affixed to it, reminds the worshiper that the death of Christ is the greatest event in the history of the world. Should we display a crucifix as opposed to a cruciform (a cross without an attached body) in a corporate worship space? Most protestant churches do not. However, if your answer is a definitive “no,” as many have answered, then we can rightly ask why, during corporate worship, do we sing Paul Gerhardt’s “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”? Christians do applaud the shameful, brutal execution of Jesus on the Cross — our glory and exultation.

The Greek cross with four arms of equal length, a traditional, more ancient form of a cross used by the early Church, is a more acceptable object for decoration. It does not directly reference the Good Friday event, but expresses in a more universal form joy and Easter celebration. The Greek cross welcomes embellishment. Using a Greek cross has advantages for a congregation which prefers a lively looking chancel.

An impressed cross in a chancel wall has profound symbolic content. No physical cross is attached on the wall; rather a cross, preferably Greek, is indented into the wall. As the Cross is impressed on the hearts of Christians, so it is impressed in the wall surface of their worship space. Most Christians realize that the redeeming act of the Cross has been completed. God’s work is done! The tomb is empty. The indented Cross celebrates both the finished redemptive task and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

A processional cross, uniquely conceptual, can be brought forward into the chancel uniting with a wall painting of radiant light thus completing a central cross. The cross becomes active and not simply a mark or label. The fourth verse of the hymn, “Thy Strong Word”, proclaims the radiant cross: “From the Cross Thy wisdom shining breaking forth in conqu’ring might; from the Cross forever beameth all Thy bright redeeming light.”

Processional cross placed within the chancel cross

Having many crosses in the sanctuary often presents a confused message. Duplicated symbols diminish their message. Displaying numerous crosses with different styles further dilutes the message by presenting an attitude not genuinely earnest. If there is no reason for the arrangement and design of many crosses, and no conception of composition with relationships of color and form, the message will be difficult to seriously accept and decipher. The crosses appear to be merely decorative, obtrusive labels.

A second processional cross may mimic the style of the central cross.

Whether crosses are Greek, Latin, or another, they should not be placed high. Placing them low is in keeping with the scriptural truth of the incarnate God who has come down to us.