Tue, 06 Jun 2023

Unique in Eastern Orthodoxy as a form of out-of-the church religious service, the 'walk of the cross' (krestnyi khod) absorbed the ancient Russian traditions of ritual marches.

In Russian, krestnyi khod (крестный ход, literally 'the walk with the cross') isn't capitalized, because it is not some certain procession, but a usual form of religious service that persists in the life of every Orthodox Christian.

The first walk of the cross every Christian takes is the one they perform around the baptismal font immediately after the sacrament of Baptism. Most Christians do this while being held by adults, since they themselves are still infants. According to the rules of the sacrament of Baptism, after a threefold immersion into the font and after anointing the newborn child of Christ with the scared myron (chrism), the newly baptized one makes three circles around the font behind the priest, who holds the cross in his hand. If an infant is baptized, it is carried in the arms of his godparent.

Walk of the cross in Novgorod, 1990s

Walk of the cross in Novgorod, 1990s

Stanislav Shaklein/MAMM/MDF/russiainphoto.ru/

The walk of the cross is a special service, during which the congregation of believers follow the Holy Cross and the icons, priests and a choir, singing psalms and prayers. They go around a particular place - for example, a temple or a city - or go towards it. The peculiarity of the procession is that the walk of the cross is often performed outside the walls of the church, and so, becomes open to all.

How did the procession originate?

'Seven Trumpets of Jericho' by James Tissot

'Seven Trumpets of Jericho' by James Tissot

The Jewish Museum, New York/Public Domain

The walk of the cross is an ancient Christian tradition, although it is not mentioned by that name in the Bible. The Old Testament speaks of two such processions: the circumambulation of the walls of Jericho with the Ark of the Covenant and the carrying of the Ark of the Lord by kings David and Solomon. These processions can be thought of as a prototype of the walk of the cross, as was the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when Christ was accompanied by the people who cried: "Blessed is the King of Israel who comes in the name of the Lord!"

It is believed that walks of the cross appeared as a response to the heretical processions conducted by the Arian heretics in Constantinople in the time of John Chrysostom (4th century A.D.). In contrast, Christian processions with the singing of psalms, litanies, hymns and prayers were instituted. From the Byzantine tradition, the procession passed on to Russian Orthodox Christians.

What kinds of walks of the cross are there?

'The walk of the cross in the Kursk governorate,' by Ilya Repin

'The walk of the cross in the Kursk governorate,' by Ilya Repin

Tretyakov gallery/Public domain

Walks of the cross are divided into church ones (authorized) and voluntary. Church ones are conducted as an obligatory part of the Divine Liturgy. For example, the procession on Easter, the procession to the pond on Epiphany and the threefold circumambulation of the church by the faithful after its consecration.

READ MORE: 7 main differences between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy

Voluntary walks of the cross are performed by the decision of the priest. These include, for example, processions with prayers in the fields during drought or processions in memory of saints or cases of miraculous help from God.

In terms of time, the walks of the cross can be one-day (most often) and multi-day, when believers walk many kilometers with stops for overnight stays.

Walk of the cross as a factor of church unification

'The walk of the cross,' 1893, by Ivan Pryanishnikov

'The walk of the cross,' 1893, by Ivan Pryanishnikov

The Russian Museum/Public domain

In the 17th century, the question of the direction of the walk of the cross became one of the key issues in the dispute between supporters of the "old" and "new" Orthodox rites. Traditionally, the walk of the cross was performed in a clockwise or sunward direction. The Nikon reforms directed this movement against the sun (counterclockwise), which became the subject of controversy and one of the causes of the Raskol of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Over time, however, the walks of the cross became one of the few rituals that brought the Old Orthodox Believers and Nikonians together. Since the schism of the Russian Orthodox church in 1653, Old Believers had been forbidden to conduct walks of the cross, ring bells, erect churches and so on. However, the Old Believers did not cease to praise the Lord. At the same time, many revered ancient icons were inside the new temples where Old Believers were forbidden to enter. It turns out that the walk of the cross, during which the crosses and holy images were taken out of the temple, was the only chance for Old Believers to pray to them.

The main point of any walk of the cross is formulated as early as the Gospel of Matthew: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," says Jesus. Those who march behind the cross and icons in solemn procession believe that spiritually, they are being led by Jesus himself.

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