The processional cross is simply put, a brass cross mounted on a long staff to be carried at the head of a procession. Medieval parish churches each had a unique processional cross to be a kind of standard behind which parishioners could be brought together. In that vein, a few years ago, we purchased a lovely processional cross to serve as a standard for the life of our parish, even as we moved around from place to place.
Every Sunday liturgy begins with a procession, one of the most ancient and universal forms of liturgical worship. Prcoessions are evident in the Old Testament such as the processions held with the Ark of the Covenant and various Temple processions up to the altar. The Romans had processions as well. Before Christians processed in the streets of Rome, various generals and caesars were granted the Triumph for their victories in war, part of which was a procession through the city. Most pagans identified themselves with the cults of this god or that by simply joining the procession of their favorite cult gods.
The Christian liturgy begins with a procession in which the sign of God's victory over sin and death is held high. At the center of our processional cross is an image of the victorious Lamb, bearing the banner of the cross. Under the lamb are the seven lamp stands of the churches of Asia described in the Revelation to Saint John. These evoke the words of Revelation:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
At the ends of each bar of the cross, there are medallions pointing to the four living creatures, each a symbol of one of the four evangelists: Matthew (Man), Mark (Lion), Luke (Ox), and John (Eagle). These creatures, often referred to as the Tetramorph, appear in the long history of Christian art and point to the Incarnation (Man) of Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah (the Lion), who offers himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin, fulfilling the Old Testament sacrifices (the Ox), that we might ascend to the heights, even to God himself (the Eagle). So, you can see that the processional cross contains in itself a kind of short hand for the Gospel. Some of you might want to go on a scavenger hunt in the church and see if you can find other depictions of these living creatures!
As the processional cross goes by the pews in procession, it is customary to give a slight bow. With this bow, we acknowledge and give thanks for the Incarnation of the Son of God and his outpouring of himself on the Cross for our redemption. We are reminded that the way for us to worship God truly is provided by the Cross. To some, this might seem to you to be idolatry. The best response to this comes from St. John of Damascus, who offers the following:
"We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross... When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them."
Like all liturgical objects, the processional cross points us to the mystery of redemption in Jesus Christ, and therefore do not fit the category of idols, which are largely constructed based upon our own human assumptions, not on divine revelation. The problem with idolatry, as Jim Packer has put it, is making God in our image! The Cross, however, is about God refashioning human life to again reflect its dignity and show forth the glory of God. As we enter into worship, we become the human beings we were created to be: lifted up to the divine in love (the vertical beam), while reaching out our hands to others in love (the horizontal beam).