It may then be considered sure that the sign of the cross with which the first Christians were marked denoted the name of the Lord, that is to say the Word, and signified that they were consecrated to him. In a Greek environment this symbolism became unintelligible, and the cross was therefore interpreted in another way. In the form + it was regarded as a representation of the instrument of Jesus’ suffering; in the form X it was taken for the first letter of Christos. But the fundamental idea was unchanged: a consecration of the baptized person to Christ.
So far we have been considering the sign of the cross, in the liturgy and on pictorial monuments, in its simplest form, that of the Greek cross. But as time passed it took on more elaborate forms, especially in archaeology. A study of the subject can be found in the Dictionnaire d’archeologie chretienne et de liturgie
, art. Croix
, by Dom Henri Leclercq, or in M. Sulzberger’s article, “Le Symbole de la croix”, in Byzantion
, 2 (1925), pp. 356-83. I want here to draw attention only to a little-known representation, which is very old and is interesting as combining the cross with the name of Jesus long before he was depicted as crucified
. We may first remark that the association of the cross with the name of Jesus occurs at a very early date in a curious passage of the Epistle of Barnabas
. The author is discussing the interpretation of the number 318, the number of Abraham’s servants. He explains that “18 is written by an iota, which stands for 10, and an eta, which stands for 8: there you have IH(sous) ” (ix, 8). He then explains that 300 is written by tau, which is the cross. So 318 stands both for the cross and the name of Jesus.
As regards the last, we have here a first form of that monogram IHS which was to be repeated so often, representing the first three letters of IHC(ous).
But in very early times the name of Jesus had another symbol, the letter waw
, for in Greek the name has six letters, and this waw
was the sixth letter of the alphabet in archaic Greek; it fell into disuse, but kept its place in the list of numbers. The Gnostics speculated on this unusual
characteristic. It appears that here again, before the Greek interpretations, there was a Judaeo-Christian basis. A. Dupont-Sommer has demonstrated that the waw
on an Aramaic Christian lamella signified the name of God, that is, Christ.
Now among the monograms of Christ there is one in which waw
is associated with the cross. It is found in St Jerome. 17 He is describing a monogram which resembles the [ chi on iota ], well known on monuments from the third century; and he explains that in the one of which he is thinking the branch coming down from left to right has the form of waw
, whilst the other two branches are like an apex and an iota, a traditional figure of the cross.
This leads to a sign very like this,
But the most interesting thing is Jerome’s interpretation, waw
joined with the cross. It is very probable that waw here denotes the name of Jesus.
This is the more likely because the pattern thus arrived at immediately reminds us of one of the best-known figures which combines Christ and the cross, namely, that of the brazen serpent set up on a pole in the wilderness. Christ himself makes use of this figure: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son ofMan be lifted up” (John 3. 14). The serpent is waw
-shaped, and Justin early gave the form of a cross to the pole (I Apol.
, lx, 3). The Fathers often mention this figure, for its source in the New Testament gave it special authority. But it could hardly fail to be a little shocking:- how could Christ be represented by a snake? There is an echo of this surprise in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses
(11, 271-7; S.C., pp. 118-20). It is understandable that justifications should have been sought for this representation. And one of the easiest was to give the serpent the shape of the letter waw, the symbol of the name of Jesus. Dupont-Sommer notes that the likeness of waw to the shape of the serpent had been one of the reasons for giving the letter a sacred character (op. cit., p. 72). He establishes this for the Hebrew waw
, and it is true also for the Greek digamma. Here again, beneath the Greek interpretations, we reach the ancient level of Aramaic Christianity. And the presence of this sign on Judaeo-Christian ossuaries in Palestine is a striking confirmation of it.
The conclusion reached by our inquiry is this. The sign of the cross is seen to have its origin, not in an allusion to Christ’s passion, but as a signification of his divine glory.
Even when it comes to be referred to the cross on which he died, that cross is regarded as the expression of the divine power which operates through his death: and the four arms of the cross are looked on as the symbol of the cosmic significance of that redeeming act.
, p. 143-145, my bold)