The cross is the ultimate Christian symbol that represents Christ Himself, His death and the untold suffering He had to undergo for the sake of our salvation. Furthermore, it reminds us of the way of the cross that lies ahead of anyone who wants to follow Christ. More than anything else, a cross worn around one’s neck is a visible sign of faith, which, among other things, protects one’s soul, provides important spiritual support and guides one toward the path of salvation and greater knowledge of God. According to the St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov, “the cross is the only genuine throne, school and storehouse of true theological knowledge”. Therefore it is believed in the Russian Orthodox Church that wearing a cross is obligatory. A cross is given to every new member of the Church during their baptism and is meant for constant wear. This helps to emphasize that the sacrament of the Holy Baptism is a symbolic co-crucifixion and co-resurrection along with Christ, a moment when “the old man” dies and “the new man” is born, cleansed by the Holy Spirit and liberated from passions and from the free reign of demons in their soul.
In the Byzantine Empire, as well as in medieval Russia, it was customary to wear the cross on one’s chest, because this part of the body is the seat of the heart, and, as such, was seen as sacred. Laypersons usually concealed the cross under their clothing to prevent it from being seen, a custom that has survived to this day. In this case the cross constantly touches the body and the two seem to form a single whole, which, in turn, creates a constant connection between the believer, Christ and the Holy Church. In addition, the cross reminds the believer of their private own way of the cross and is equated to the Cross of Christ with particular ease, as it invokes a parallel between the Cross of Christ and the personal cross which, in the Savior’s own words, each of us is required to bear. If the cross is invisible to others, it has a purely protective (apotropaic) function and protects the wearer from spiritual dangers depending on the strength of their relationship with God.
In the Byzantine Empire, and later in Russia, the only ones to wear crosses in public over their clothes were bishops. Ordinary priests began to do so much later, approximately in the 17th or 18th century. In addition, crosses were worn openly by the heads of state – that is, by Byzantine emperor and by Russian Princes and Tsars. By doing so, they would demonstrate that their power had been granted and ordained by God. It is this symbolism of Christian ministry that comes to the fore if one decides to wear a cross over one’s clothes. The believer seems to be letting everyone know that he or she is a servant of Christ and all of his or her secular activities take place in Christ and for Christ’s glory. In this case, the believer establishes a connection not only with Christ and His Holy Church, but also with the surrounding world, which means more responsibility and a greater number of temptations. However, it should be noted for the sake of justice that the practice of wearing the cross openly did exist among the laity, as women would occasionally wear ornate crosses over the clothes as part of their festive outfits, and the cross was recognized as having an aesthetic function as well as a protective one.
To summarize, it could be argued that wearing a cross in secret under one’s clothes is the most beneficial, safe and desirable option in any historical and cultural context, though wearing a cross over one’s outer clothes is also allowed.