The Tau is a very ancient symbol and also known as the Crux Commissa, the Franciscan Cross, the Anticipatory Cross, the Advent Cross, the Crutch Cross, or the St. Anthony's Cross.
'Tau' rhymes with 'how' and derives its name from the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabet's last letter 'X', which was pronounced 'Taw'.1
This same sound transliterates to the Greek letter 'T'. Both the 'X' and 'T' shapes are used in forms of the Chi-Rho Cross.
The heraldic term is Crux Commissa, which means a cross made by joining or attaching pieces together. With the cross bar used as a carrying handle, it is called Crux Ansata and represents a symbol of divinity on Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian sculptures, such as Isis and Osiris. (See also the Ankh Cross.)
An emblem of immortality, life in general, sometimes a phallic symbol, and a pagan sign of the mystic Tau of the Chaldeans and the Egyptians, where it represented the Roman god Mithras, the Greek Attis and their forerunner Tammuz, the Sumerian dying and rising god, consort of the goddess Ishtar. Conveniently, the original form of the letter 'T' was the initial letter of the god of Tammuz. During baptism ceremonies, this cross was marked on the foreheads by the pagan priest.
Today in India and elsewhere, marking the forehead (at the point of the Ajna Chakra2 - the location of one's third eye, or conscience) with a sacred tilak mark, is a custom practiced by Hindus and others, signifying that they follow Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devi or Shakti.
As mentioned above, Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and this has significance: it represents the fulfillment of the revealed word of God.
The Tau Cross appears in artworks depicting Moses when God told him to "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." (Num. 21:8). (See also Serpent Cross.) Jesus prophesied his own crucifixion by saying "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15.) This anticipation of his own crucifixion leads to another name, the Anticipatory Cross or the Advent Cross, and used by some churches for Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. (See also Holly Cross.)
Forty days before Easter, the first day of Lent, some Christian churches celebrate Ash Wednesday by marking the Sign of the Cross on the foreheads of believers, as a reminder of their mortality (hence ash) and penance for their sin (dirt). The ashes are from the palms of the previous year's Palm Sunday. (See also Palm Cross.)
Forehead-marking for the faithful is mentioned in Ezek. 9:4 (NET)
|4. ||And the Lord said to him, "Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst of it."|
This is taken to mean that those who sigh (out of grief for other men's sins and sorrows) and cry (openly bewail the abominations of wicked Jerusalem), should be identified by a mark. In short - God's faithful followers should have their foreheads marked for salvation. The mark made was that of a Tau cross. (Little did the writers know that centuries later, a cross would have a further dedication as a mark of salvation.) The assumption that the mark was Tau is from the Bible's earlier Latin Vulgate version:
|4. ||et dixit Dominus ad eum transi per mediam civitatem in medio Hierusalem et signa thau super frontes virorum gementium et dolentium super cunctis abominationibus quae fiunt in medio eius|
The ancient Greek has the same:
and in the early development of the Greek church, the staff of the archbishop resembled the Tau.3
Much later, the Tau cross shape attributed to Moses as an instrument of healing was adopted by the Egyptian Fr. Anthony when he followed an ascetic life in the Egyptian desert. Although his lifestyle was simple and hermit like, he was admired for his health (he lived to be 105) and wisdom. His fame spread - even reaching Emperor Constantine - and the Tau cross then took on an additional name: the St. Anthony's Cross.
St. Francis adopted St. Anthony's Cross after meeting monks working at a leper house in Assisi and the hospital of St. Blase in Rome (now the church of 'San Francisco a Ripa') where Francis stayed.
He used this cross for protection against the plague and other skin diseases, matching the Egyptian claim that the symbol aided immortality and general well-being.
Stretching out his arms, St. Francis demonstrated to his friars that their habit was the shape of the Tau cross. They must go out into the world, wearing this cross like an incarnation of Christ.
The monks were Antonines from the holy Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony. (In the early 11th century, relics of St. Anthony had been taken to south western France where the Order was founded.)
The monks wore a Tau cross on their habits and about that time, there was a dreadful poisoning of ignis sacer. The symptoms included severe burning sensation in the fingers and toes, which led to blisters of gangrene and even loss of limbs due to restricted blood circulation. This was surely punishment from God and victims went to the St. Anthony monks for treatment.
The malady became known as 'St. Anthony's Fire' or 'Holy Fire'. (It is now believed the cause was grain contaminated with a fungus called ergot. Other symptoms of ergotism include convulsive seizures, spasms and hallucinations. Ergot contains ergotamine, which in 1938 was used to synthesize Lysergsäure-diethylamid, better known as LSD.)