If you look inside any church, you are likely to find a Christian cross. These symbols are typically made of stone, polished hardwood, some type of polymer or metal, and occasionally gilded with gold leaf. Some are very delicately carved, or beautiful in their artistic simplicity and geometry. (See for example the Snowflake Cross)
Very rarely do we see a cross of roughly hewn agrestic timbers. And this is odd because Jesus was not crucified on a cross of polished hardwood, polymer or metal, and certainly not a cross gilded with gold leaf.
Rugged means coarse and tough, roughed-up and jagged. The cross was never constructed as a piece of delicate finery; rather it was an instrument of torture, built to withstand harsh handling. In a church, a Rugged Cross is an attempt to show something more authentic than the unlikely alternatives usually displayed.
A beautiful filigree cross has its place, but many Christians feel it worth remembering its actual appearance. And one of their most popular hymns is The Old Rugged Cross.
Of course, the actual appearance of the cross is of minor importance when considering the meaning of the cross. It could be named a Propitiatory Cross or an Expiatory Cross, or some other posh name used by the better educated theologians. For you and me, let's just call it an Atonement Cross or Forgiveness Cross; for that is what happened there, some two thousand years ago.
In heraldry, such a cross is called Raguly, where the angled stubs along each arm represent the sawn-off tree branches. An alternative term for this is the Rayed Cross, where the stubs represent rays of light or flames emanating from the cross. (See also Glory Cross and Flaming Cross.)
There is no reference in the Bible to say that the cross used to crucify Jesus was a freshly cut tree trunk, and it makes economic sense that these implements were recycled. It can be assumed that Jesus' cross was used again, perhaps many times for many years, until it rotted away, snapped or split from repeated use.
What happened to the splinters after that is unknown, but many believe that the Crucifixion site, including whatever was left of the cross, was buried and above it was built a temple to another god of love, Venus. They further believe that the remains of the cross were discovered when the Empress Helena (c. AD 250 – c. AD 330), mother of Constantine, excavated the site in the 4th century. These remains are known as relics of the True Cross and are now in the custody of several European churches.
Some people are understandably sceptical about the authenticity of all this, which is of little consequence to the countless number of people who have felt physical, medical, emotional and spiritual benefit from touching a relic of the original Old Rugged Cross.