Several months ago, one of my relatives visited the church where I am a member, St. Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida. This person later said although the service was enjoyable, some aspects of its liturgy — especially the cross procession, in which the cross is carried followed by the choir and clergy from the back of the sanctuary to the chancel at the beginning of the worship service — were too reminiscent of Roman Catholicism and reduced the practice to “ritualism.” I then did some cursory research of the subject and found that this practice is grounded in Scripture.
I am publishing my apologetic response that was given via email to my relative here for the benefit of anyone who sees a cross procession in an orthodox Christian church to be extraneous or overly traditional.
I’d like to answer in more detail your question about why we have a cross procession at St. Andrew’s. Obviously, this practice is most familiar in the Roman Catholic communion, but as its origin is found in both the Old and New Testaments, it is inaccurate to say that it is an exclusively Roman Catholic practice and is mere ritualism, or worse, idolatry. Kissing and bowing to the brass cross, as sometimes happens in Roman Catholic mass, would be crass idolatry.
“The cross is the fundamental symbol in Christianity representing the whole meaning of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, life and ministry, and incarnation and coming in glory. While there are many forms of the cross, one of the most common forms is the resurrection, or empty, cross — called the Latin cross. The letters ‘IHS’ at the center of the cross are the first three letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek … The person who carries the processional cross is called a ‘crucifer.’ During the Service of the Lord’s Day, one of our young people carries the cross leading the procession reminding us that Christ carried the cross to Golgotha, the place of the skull, as a self offering for us. As the benediction is offered at the conclusion of our worship, the processional cross recesses reminding us of our mission to carry Christ into all the world.” (Source: First Presbyterian Church, Reidsville, NC)
The procession accompanying Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem prefigures and inspires the processions of yesterday and today that the Christian church undertakes as part of its worship throughout the world. Two reports of the same event:
(Matthew 21:9) “The crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!'”
(Mark 11:9) “And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'”
(As an aside, the New Living Translation, in both these verses, renders this event as a “procession.”)
Of course, the herald of the king was prophesied about 520 years before it happened:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In the didactic writings, Apostle Paul describes all the faithful in Christ as Christ’s captives following him in his “triumphal procession.”
(II Corinthians 2:14) “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”
In the Old Testament, there are numerous descriptions of festal and solemn processions leading from the streets to the sanctuary and altar of the first Temple, examples of the devotion of God’s people. Among the many positive, biblical references are the following:
(Psalm 118:27) “The LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!”
The New Testament, in II Corinthians 4:6 and Ephesians 1:17-18, identifies the LORD’s light as being the knowledge that comes from Christ. Later, the New Testament, in Romans 12:1 and Hebrews 13:15, identifies thankfulness and worship as the sacrifice that is acceptable at the Lord’s altar.
(Psalm 68:24) “Your procession is seen, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.”
(Psalm 42:4) “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”
That the people of God are called upon to participate in processions with music and joy also is reflected in the Old Testament (as it is in Matthew 21:9 and Mark 11:9). The modern cross procession is also based on the Ark of the Covenant procession that took place in ancient Israel.
(I Chronicles 15:28-29) “So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres. And as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came to the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David dancing and celebrating, and she despised him in her heart.”
So what does the carrying of the Ark of the Covenant really have to do with a modern cross procession? Well, there is a point of continuity here between the Old and New Testaments. Just as the Ark of the Covenant is the embodiment of God’s promise to save his people, so the cross of Christ is the symbol of God’s faithfulness to redeem his people — which, by the way, is retroactive to the Old Testament saints (II Corinthians 1:20).
Do I believe that all Christian churches should have a cross procession as part of their worship service? Well, not necessarily. It is of secondary importance. But at the same time, there is certainly nothing wrong with it, and in fact, a systematic, covenantal reading of the Scriptures provides good reason to include it in worship. It is a strong visual reminder of Christ’s accomplishment of salvation for his people, and his subsequent call to bring the message of the cross throughout the world.
A cross procession might for some people be reminiscent of Roman Catholicism, but as its roots go much further back to the Scriptures themselves, it would be unfair for someone who objects to that system to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.
Thanks for bringing up this concern, as it spurred me to research the subject, and now I have a better understanding of the biblical basis of our liturgy.