From the Introduction to the Feast of the Cross by His Grace Bishop Serapion: The Holy Cross held a prominent and revered place in early Christian life and worship. It was a sign of protection, holiness, worship, and blessing to believers everywhere, even before The Empress Helen discovered its location. In the early third century, for example, Christians made the sign of the Cross on their foreheads three times daily as a sign of protection. In 211, the scholar Tertullian wrote,
“At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross].”
Another early Christian work of the same period, the Apostolic Tradition, reveals the importance of the sign of the Cross in early Christian spirituality and devotion: If you are tempted, seal your foreheads reverently. For this is the Sign of the Passion, displayed and made manifest against the devil, provided that you do it with faith, not to be seen by men, but by presenting it with skill like a shield.
Because the Adversary, when he sees the strength of the heart and when he sees the inner man which is animated by the Word show, formed on the exterior, the interior image of the Word, he is made to flee by the Spirit which is in you. This is symbolized by the Paschal lamb which was sacrificed, the blood of which Moses sprinkled on the threshold, and smeared on the doorposts. He told us of the faith which is now in us, which was given to us through the perfect Lamb. By signing [the Cross on] the forehead and eyes with the hand, we turn aside the one who is seeking to destroy us.
By the fourth century, catechumens were instructed that they should make the sign of the Cross to arm themselves against the devil. The sign of the Cross was even used in the earliest rites of baptism in the blessing of the waters, the Chrism, and in the exorcism of catechumens. St. Caesarius of Arles advised his faithful, “Whenever you have to go anywhere, sign yourselves with the Name of Jesus Christ, say the Creed or the Lord’s prayer and go your ways sure of the divine protection.” The Cross was not only a sign of protection, but also a sign of worship and veneration, as well. Since at least the second century, early Christians (especially those in Syria) painted or nailed a cross on the eastern wall of a Christian dwelling so that they could face the cross while praying to the East.
The martyr Hipparchus worshipped before such a painted cross seven times a day. Christians began their prayers with the sign of the cross, even during the midnight office. St. Horsiesios (c. 380), the second successor of St. Pachomius, the great Egyptian abbot who established the first rule of monasticism, spoke of the Cross as the heart of monastic piety in Egypt: “We have renounced the word and begun to follow the standard of the Cross.” By the seventh century, each Syrian monk had a cross in his cell which he would venerate. Moreover, the sign of the Cross was a remembrance of the redemption by the Lord’s suffering and Crucifixion, which the believers were to commemorate during the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day.
The Paradise of the Desert Fathers explains to us how often they would extend their arms in the form of a Cross in prayer, as St. Arsenius did all evening until sunset. In the Divine Liturgy, St. Augustine instructs, “Let them all sign themselves with the sign of the Cross of Christ.
Let them all respond, ‘Amen.’ Let them all sing, ‘Alleluia.’” So, the Coptic doxology of the Feast of the Cross begins by saying, “And we also the people, the sons of the Orthodox, we bow down to the Cross, of our Lord Jesus Christ… Hail to you, O Cross, the sign of salvation.” Finally, the Cross for early Christians was a great blessing. The scholar Tertullian understood Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Mannesseh as a type of the Cross, through which we are blessed. In the fourth century, the pilgrim Egeria describes how people would take the blessing of the bishop by kissing the cross in his hands.
Above all, the feasts of the Cross remind us of this great blessing of the Cross, especially in its hymns and praises. As the festal doxology declares: We take pride in you, O Cross; on which Jesus was crucified, for through your type, we were set free. The mouths of the Orthodox, and the seven angelic hosts, take pride in you, O Cross, of our Good Savior. We carry you O Cross, on the necks of the Christians, O supporter of the brave, and we proclaim loudly: “Hail to you, O Cross, the joy of Christians, the conquer of tyranny, our confirmation we the faithful. Hail to you, O Cross, the comfort of the faithful, and the confirmation of the martyrs, who completed their struggles.”