The history of the adoration of the cross

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Pope Francis holds a crucifix during the Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 19, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

If you’ve been Catholic for at least a few years, you will be familiar with a tradition celebrated on Good Friday in churches around the world — the adoration of the cross. But how did this tradition begin, and what does it signify for us Christians?

Before diving into the history and tradition of this important part of the Good Friday liturgy, it is important to note that there are many Catholic documents that refer to this ritual as the “veneration of the holy Cross” as opposed to the “adoration of the holy Cross.” The description that follows reflects the terminology in the Roman Missal as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, both using the word “adoration” of the holy cross. In a like manner, when reference to the cross is made herein, the term crucifix is also implied.

A saint’s search for the True Cross

Saint Helena
Cima da Conegliano/Public domain

The ritual of adoring the holy Cross can be traced to St. Helena who, in the early fourth century, traveled from Constantinople to Jerusalem seeking to uncover the sites of Christ’s passion, especially the Cross used for his crucifixion. The places where Jesus was tried, sentenced and crucified had been covered over by the Romans, even with pagan structures built on the sites. In her quest for the location where Christ was hung on a tree, Helena consulted with many locals. They told her that the key to finding the Cross was to find the spot where Christ was buried because the Jews typically dug a pit nearby and then buried everything that belonged to the criminal, including the instrument of execution. Following this advice, Helena had many local sites excavated and pagan statues and buildings removed.

Eventually three crosses were found. In order to identify which of the three was the True Cross, they took the crosses to a holy woman who was ill and near death. First, they prayed for the woman, then they touched her with a part of each of the crosses. One of the crosses caused her complete healing — the True Cross. Helena sent part of the Cross to Constantinople and left part in Jerusalem. She would later take pieces of the Cross to Rome where it was enshrined in the church known as the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventh century, the Good Friday adoration of the wood of the True Cross was being carried out in Rome. The pope and others walked in profession from St. John Lateran to the Holy Cross Church and then, in total humility without cap or shoes, adored the wood of the Cross.

Who was St. Helena?
Despite being born into a lower-class family, St. Helena (c. 250-330 A.D.) married Constantius Chlorus, who held the title of Caesar from 293-305 and then Caesar Augustus until 306. At this time, their son, Constantine the Great, became Roman emperor. Many historians and theologians have concluded that Helena was a Christian, and it was she who influenced Constantine to support and defend Christianity. Indeed, Constantine ended religious persecution in the Roman empire, and during his reign Christianity went from being considered some kind of cult hidden in the shadows to being recognized as the state religion. At the age of 80, St. Helena, with her son’s support, began her search for the True Cross. During this time, she also discovered the nails used during Christ’s crucifixion and other relics, such as Jesus’ tunic and pieces of the rope used to tie Jesus to the cross.

St. Helena is the patron saint of new discoveries. Her feast day is celebrated on Aug. 18.

As the Church grew and with only a few parishes possessing fragments of the True Cross, either a bare cross or a crucifix was used for the faithful to adore on Good Friday. Today a cross without a figure of Jesus crucified is not common in our churches. In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) reads: “There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations” (No. 308). Certainly, the somber and sacredness of adoring the Holy Cross on Good Friday calls to mind the saving Passion of the Lord.

In middle ages, for a time, the habit of “creeping to the Cross” became popular; that is, people crawled on their knees to the Cross. The highly revered St. Louis IX, King of France (r. 1226-70), is said to have crept on his knees to the Cross on Good Friday: barefoot, without his crown, dressed in a hair shirt, and his children would do the same. In 16th-century England, King Henry the VIII (r. 1509-47) issued a proclamation that included veneration of the Cross: “creeping to the cross, and humbling ourselves to Christ on Good-Friday before the cross, and there offering unto Christ before the same, and kissing of it in memory of our redemption by Christ made upon the cross.” The practice was off again and on again until the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) when it was suppressed.

Good Friday Procession
A relic of the True Cross is carried in procession through the Piazza in 15th century San Marco, Venice. Gentile Bellini/Public domain


Today’s Good Friday service

Good Friday is the only day of the year when the Church does not celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. On this day, we the faithful are meant to focus on the Passion of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is the most sorrowful day known to man, the day our Savior died for us on the Cross. Over 2,000 years later, Christians still gather every Good Friday afternoon around 3 p.m. to remember in a special way what happened at the Place of the Skull all those centuries ago — how Christ, suffering and innocent, was executed by hanging on a tree.

Although churches are often packed, Good Friday is not a holy day of obligation. It is a divine service known as the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord and made up of three parts. In the first part we hear the account of the Passion from the Gospel according to St. John and participate in special, solemn intercessions. Next we adore the cross. Finally we receive holy Communion. The most dramatic part is the adoration of the cross.

Following the reading of the Passion and the 10 intercessions, the rite of the Adoration of the Holy Cross begins with the showing of the cross. There are two forms used in showing the cross. In one form, a veiled cross is brought in procession through the church to the sanctuary where the priest removes the veil in three stages, in between chanting: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the savior of the world.” Those gathered respond, “Come let us adore,” then kneel and adore in silence. Three times the chanting, response and kneeling is repeated. When unveiled, the cross is brought to a spot visible and accessible to all present, typically the entrance to the sanctuary. It may be held by two ministers. Adoration begins with each person coming forward and adoring the cross by a genuflection or other act appropriate to the local area or region. A common method of adoration is to genuflect and then kiss the cross or crucifix. A genuflection is “reserved for the most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil” (GIRM, No. 274).

Almost immediately after the Cross was discovered, Christians began to adore it. During a fourth-century pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a lady named Etheria (or Egeria) described how our Christian ancestors adored the True Cross on Good Friday:

“Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is place before him; the deacons stand around the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass on. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; and then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hands on it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring.”

Source: “The Pilgrimage of Etheria”

In his book, “A Sense of the Sacred” James Monti references William Durandus, a 13th-century bishop in France, who believed the cross was unveiled in three stages representing the three times Christ was mocked during his trial, his sentencing and his crucifixion. “The first unveiling, revealing one arm of the cross while keeping the face of the crucifix veiled, symbolizes the mockery and blows to the face that Christ received while blindfolded in the court of the chief priest. The second unveiling, revealing the face of the crucifix, represents the mockery he received when he was crowned with thorns in the Praetorium. The third and final unveiling, completely uncovering the crucifix, symbolizes the mockery he received from passersby who, wagging their heads, blasphemed him as he hung stripped of his clothes on the Cross.”

Bishop Gerald L. Vincke of Salina, Kan., elevates the cross during a Good Friday service April 10, 2020, at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Salina. CNS photo/Karen Bonar, The Register

An alternative form for showing the cross is for the priest or deacon to go to the door of the church, receive the unveiled cross and carry it in procession to the sanctuary. At the door, in the middle of the church and at the sanctuary the priest or deacon raises the cross chanting, “Behold wood of the Cross …,” and the community responds with, “Come let us adore.” At the raising of the cross all kneel and adore. The cross is placed at the entrance of the sanctuary for the faithful to adore.

Each person in attendance on Good Friday is given the opportunity to adore the cross. In a letter issued by the Congregation of Divine Worship in 1988, it says “the personal veneration [adoration] of the Cross is a most important feature in this celebration” (No. 69). This letter also states, “let a cross be used that is of appropriate size and beauty. … The rite should be carried out with the splendor worthy of the mystery of our salvation” (No. 68). Although we are encouraged to adore individually, there are some places where a large cross is used and more than one person adores simultaneously. The Roman Missal permits the priest, in the event of an extensive number of adorers, to stand in front of the altar and raise the cross allowing all those present the opportunity to silently adore it.

A plenary indulgence can be attained when we participate in the adoration of the cross on Good Friday. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Manual of Indulgences reads, “A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who devoutly assist at the adoration of the Cross in the solemn liturgical action on Good Friday.”

Of course, to obtain the indulgence we must also have our sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, complete the assigned penance, be in a state of grace — free from all sin — pray for the pope, receive holy Communion, complete the devotion — that is, adoring the cross on Good Friday — and have the intent to obtain the indulgence. We can receive the indulgence for ourselves or for someone in purgatory.

Few events are more emotional for a Catholic than assembling with hundreds of others and in procession adoring our crucified Jesus on the cross, to see individuals genuflect, kiss his feet, watch as parents lift up their children to do the same. Despite our grief, we know that without the Crucifixion, without the instrument of salvation there is no Resurrection — which means no eternal life for us. Every blessing, every grace, every sacrament we have results from Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.

A woman venerates a crucifix during a Good Friday service April 14, 2017 at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam. CNS photo/Kham, Reuters

Indeed, we humbly come in adoration before the one who gave himself for us. We stand where Mary stood, see his wounds, the nails, his pain and we tremble as we kiss his feet trying to find a way to express our love. The mournful words of the “Stabat Mater” cross our minds: “Let me share with thee His pain, / Who for all our sins was slain, / Who for me in torments died.”

The Good Friday service, which began with the reading of the Passion of Christ, ends with holy Communion. The Eucharist distributed on Good Friday is consecrated the night before during the Holy Thursday liturgy and then moved to the altar of repose. Following the adoration of the cross on Good Friday the consecrated hosts are returned for holy Communion. After Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is reverently taken out of the church to a suitable place where it remains until the Easter Vigil. The priest then offers the final blessing; all in attendance genuflect to the cross and depart in silence, promising never again to bring such pain to Jesus. The cross remains but the altar is stripped and the whole church takes on the starkness we noted as the service began.

D. D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.


“For 20 centuries
the Church has gathered on this evening
to remember and to relive
the events of the final stage
of the earthly journey of the Son of God. …
“We are here
because we are convinced that the Way of the Cross of the Son of God
was not simply a journey
to the place of execution.
We believe that every step of the Condemned Christ,
every action and every word,
as well as everything felt and done
by those who took part in this tragic drama,
continues to speak to us.
In his suffering and death too,
Christ reveals to us the truth about God and man. …
“We want to concentrate
on the full meaning of that event,
so that what happened may speak with new power
to our minds and hearts,
and become the source of the grace
of a real sharing in it.
To share means to have a part.
“What does it mean to have a part
in the Cross of Christ?
It means to experience, in the Holy Spirit,
the love hidden within the Cross of Christ.
It means to recognize, in the light of this love,
our own cross.
It means to take up that cross once more and,
strengthened by this love, to continue our journey …
To journey through life, in imitation of the one who ‘endured the cross,
despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Heb 12:2).”
— Stations of the Cross opening prayer, April 21, 2000

D.D. Emmons

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.