When I was in 9th grade I remember taking a 3×5 piece of brass plate and cutting it into the shape of an Orthodox cross compete with the short cross bar above the main beam and a slanted bar underneath. At the top, I drilled a small enough hole to fit a chain through and placed it around my neck. It was a combination of middle school shop class and pride in my Orthodox faith taught me by my family that helped me create this one of a kind religious emblem. Not many kids had crosses that I remember back then, at least not triple bar crosses hung around their neck. About 2 ½ inches long and 1 ½ inches wide it was difficult to miss as it hung from my teenage neck and was often the topic of discussion in school as fellow students would ask me what the bars meant. I took careful attention to tell ‘the story.’
Most people who asked were very curious as to what those other bars were that made this cross so different that most others they’d seen before. For a moment my friends were focused on something other than rock music, sports or the latest gossip. It was a moment in time that seemed to stop as all eyes and ears were held still, waiting with baited attention to explain these curiosities.
There was the regular cross, I’d start, with the cross beam and long bar we all know. Above the main beam, though, was a shorter bar upon which was written in, I believe Judaic, ‘King of the Jews’ or ‘INRI’, a phrase written to mock Jesus as he lay bloodily nailed through his arms and feet high atop Mount Golgotha or ‘the Place of the Skull.’ For me the term ‘INRI’ is blazoned in my mind as it is inscribed on the large wooden cross behind the altar in our church on Broadbridge Avenue. As a child, I believe it was my grandfather who taught me the meaning and the rest of the story. ‘Pa Pa’, as I called him, Father Joseph to everyone else, had a way of gently explaining things which I would remember for the rest of my life.
That was just the first part though. The other bar, I continued had two meanings. One, I said, was that there were two thieves on either side of Christ. One on the left and one on the right. The one on the right ridiculed Christ saying, according to Luke 23:39;
“If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him saying “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive due reward of our deeds, but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
It was here I’d emphasize the message that if you believe in Christ you will go to heaven and if you don’t, you’ll go to hell. A simple message.
The other meaning of the slanted bar came last, a testament to the unwavering faith of a believer who himself faced the barbarity of Rome’s soldiers. St. Andrew, the patron saint of the Slav’s, was captured and sentenced to death by crucifixion. When faced with being crucified on a cross like Christ, he said he wasn’t worthy and asked to have the bar slanted.
I don’t think many expected the explanation to be in such detail, but it was and regularly left the questioner speechless. I don’t think many people really know the story, at least, this one and the meaning of the triple bars that decorate and celebrate so much of the Orthodox Church and her faith. Triple bar crosses are seen in many places especially in church and many of our homes, but also on television especially when the news shows us pictures of Moscow’s St. Basil’ cathedral, but how many really know the significance of the triple bar crosses that augment the onion domes of that magnificent church or other churches for that matter? For most, they are busy symbols without specific meaning or mention. I hope the story has in some way has changed that.
For me, I prefer a simple silver cross 2 inches by 1 ½ that hangs from my neck. Nothing fancy, just a quiet testament to the love and faith Christ had and has for all of us. Others like gold crosses, larger, smaller and there are many different styles to choose from, but whenever I tell the story I am transported back to my childhood as I stood and watched my grandfather serve during lent. It was usually a Friday, the end of the week where as one of the altar boys I’d hand him a container of incense and with a silver spoon he’d drop a few crystalline grains on a slowly burning piece of charcoal as he sang our heartfelt Slavic melodies and prayed so sincerely, while glancing up at the icons of saints and God above. As he got older, I could see increasing exhaustion in my grandfather’s face, but I could also see his undying faith. This was especially true on Good Friday as he read from the gospel describing Christ’s march up Mount Golgotha to His crucifixion, death and, soon to be, resurrection.
A I listened to my grandfather I could see Christ’s blood drip down from His sweat laden forehead as He struggled with the weight of the large wooden cross pressing heavily on his whipped and bleeding back. No story, no reading was more dramatic than that my grandfather made that night for it was a part of the very core of our Christian belief; The struggle, the fight, the superhuman, but very human drive to complete His father’s task. What a price to pay, what a burden to bear, what a sacrifice to make so we could enter His Kingdom.
I believe that the story of the meaning of the Orthodox cross tells us much more. It describes in detail what Christ suffered for us. It is an amazing story and one that purposely doesn’t fit into today’s secular world where everything we want is convenient and painless and at our fingertips. Most importantly, it puts into perspective so much we need to know.