Processional crosses came into use very early in the church, perhaps as early as the 7th century. The cross was viewed as a ‘victory standard’ similar to those carried at the head of a victorious army as it processed into a capital city, such as Rome. The cross, of course, symbolized the victory of Christ and Christianity over evil and the pagan world — Christianity had conquered the Roman Empire and the Cross is the Christians’ standard.
Scattered 14th and 15th century liturgical manuscripts from England refer to processional crosses used in the entrance procession of Mass. Evidence suggests that the general practice across medieval Europe was for processional crosses to be carried at or close to the front of the entrance procession at more solemn Masses. A 13th-century Pontifical of the Roman Curia lists the processional cross as the first of the objects to be carried in the entrance possession.1
The crucifix, in contrast to the plain cross, was being used in some liturgical celebrations as early as the 10th century. A 14th century rubric directed that in all processions the cross should be carried with “the face of the image of the cross”, that is, the face (corpus) of the crucified Christ, “turned toward the people”.2
Psalm 67:2 was cited by Pope Innocent III (died 1216) as the reason for carrying the cross at the head of processions:3
“Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: and let them that hate Him flee before His face.”
God arises (the standard/cross is lifted up) and His enemies flee before His face (the corpus of the crucifix).
I think it would be helpful if priests and deacons and catechetical folks would find opportunities to promote this understanding or explanation for the use of the processional cross, especially its analogy to Psalm 67:2. Wouldn’t congregations be better predisposed to derive more grace from the entrance procession of the Mass knowing that analogy? Wouldn’t the people tend to view the entrance procession with deeper appreciation? Upon seeing the Crucifix at the head of the procession would not the congregation visualize evil fleeing before the face of Christ? Wouldn’t it more effectively predispose the congregation to receive the graces that flow from the victory enacted and celebrated at the altar?
1 James Monti, “A Sense of the Sacred – Roman Catholic Worship During the Middle Ages”, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 2012) p. 30
2 Monti p. 31
3 Monti p. 31
Photo 1:“Processional Crucifix”, ca. 1180–90, Made in Limoges, France Champlevé enamel, copper-gilt, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917. Photo Credit: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/467727?rpp=20&pg=1&rndkey=20130821&ft=*&what=Enamels|Crosses&pos=7.
Photo 2: “Processional Crucifix”, ca. 1150, Possibly made in Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, Champlevé enamel, copper-gilt, Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941. Photo Credit: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/467727?rpp=20&pg=1&rndkey=20130821&ft=*&what=Enamels|Crosses&pos=7.