The Catholic Processional Cross and the Roman Standard

By | September 2, 2019


During the entrance procession, incense is carried before an acolyte who holds a long staff that bears the quintessential Christian symbol —the cross. Despite being part of the liturgy since at least the 6th century, the custom of processing while holding aloft ceremonial objects predates Christianity. Several cultures like the Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks had processions where ritual items were carried before priests, governors and other persons of import. But arguably the most direct influence on the development of the Christian processional cross can be found in the practices of ancient Rome— particularly in it’s use of a distinctive
military object— the standard For several hundred years, the Roman Empire encompassed much of the known world, and her conquests were a product of the Army’s efficiency, loyalty and ferocity. One of the most striking visual aspects of the Imperial Army were tall poles affixed with various insignia and symbols called “standards.” Each century, cohort and legion had its own symbols that were often associated with the birthday of the unit or its founder, while other emblems commemorated military exploits or other victories. In this way, standards helped preserve the cohesiveness and pride of the soldiers, as it embodied the unit’s milestones and achievements. Standards served important war-time functions. Army units required a device to watch and follow in battle and soldiers needed to recognize their
own units at a glance in order not to be scattered. The tall standards were see above the fighting, and waving them in a predetermined manner relayed troop movements and provided other instructions. As the Empire grew, standards also helped unite the many soldiers who were recruited from foreign lands. The standards reminded them that, before they were Britons, Gauls or Balkans, they were, above all, a soldier for Rome. Off the field of battle, standards took part in several civic and
religious celebrations where they were anointed with oils and
carried in processions. Roman standards were held in awe, o much so that Tertullian, writing in the second century, declared that soldiers worshiped their
standards above all gods. Historians speculate that when
Christianity was legalized began to codify its liturgy in the fourth century, Roman standards served as inspiration
for the development of the processional cross. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of
Constantinople, and St. Augustine, Archbishop of Canterbury were among the first to introduce its use. Saint Bede in his work “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” describes St. Augustine as carrying a Silver Cross for a standard. For ancient Rome, standards were seen as a distinguishing mark for its military units. Simply put, the Roman armies carried standards to show who they were. For us, the cross is the mark of OUR identity as Christians. It marks us as those claimed by Christ. It is the
quintessential symbol that unites the faithful much more so
than a national flag or coat of arms ever could. Before originating from one nation or another; before hailing from this family or that; even before being male or female, above all else, Christians belong to Christ and they follow his cross. It is befitting, then, that this tenet manifest itself literally by having a cross carried in procession. It is the mark that overshadows all others and it is the cross that leads the faithful in worship.

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