...to the Cross upon which Jesus died?

[This is the first in a series of articles that will appear in Annals until our Jan/Feb issue 2001, tracing the history of sacred relics associated with our Lord's life and death]

By Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD

DATING from the time of the emperor Constantine's mother, St Helena, who was born in Bithynia in the North west of Anatolia in modern-day Turkey around 246 AD and died in 328 AD, is a still-extant pectoral cross in the shape of the now familiar monogram of Christ [see inset].

It contains a fragment of the True Cross. On its front the cross carries in a mixture of latin and greek the inscription EMANOVHL NOBISCUM DEVS [Emmanuel, God with us] and on the back, in latin, 'Crux est vita mihi; mors, inimice, tibi' [The cross is life for me; but for you, 0 enemy, death].1 The enemy was, of course, the devil.

This pectoral cross is a precious witness to the faith of the newly emancipated Catholic people within the Roman empire, and to the extraordinary story of the discovery of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

Persecutions end

When Constantine defeated Maxentius the debauched son of the emperor Maximian at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber in Rome on September 24, 312 AD, he brought to an end the persecution of Christians within the Roman empire. These persecutions had raged virtually from the time of Christ's death, but officially on and off for 248 years, beginning with Nero's infamous burning of Rome in 64 AD.

Early the next year [313 AD] the emperors Constantine and Licinius met in Milan and agreed to recognise the legal existence of Christianity.

Juggling with Figures

TWO of the most fascinating details in Emerson's book are the fact that Twain made $250,000 in 1881, but only $8,500 in 1894. How could anyone earn that much in the 1800s? It bears comparison only with the profits from Star Wars in our time. And how in the world did Twain then manage to lose it?

- cf. Everett Emerson, The Authentic Mark Twain, Us Feb 1, 1985

Following on this historic decision [known as the Edict of Milan] Eusebius, the first Church historian [260-340 AD] notes that the newly victorious emperor Constantine was determined to honour the holy places in Palestine associated with our Lord's life and death, and especially to build a Christian shrine in Jerusalem over the place where Jesus died and was buried.2

Helena, Constantine's mother, then in her early seventies, was sent by the emperor to the Holy Land in 326 AD,3 the year after the Council of Nicaea to recover what she could of the memorials of Jesus and his apostles.

Hiding the truth

Her task was a difficult one. As St Jerome [342-420 AD] tells us every attempt was made in the time of the emperor Hadrian to destroy all trace of the site where Jesus had been crucified and buried 'as if by profaning the holy places by idols they might destroy our faith in the resurrection, and in the cross'.4 The ground had been levelled off around Golgotha, and temples and statues to Jupiter and Venus had been erected on the site.

It was two years after the death in 324 of the avaricious and cruel emperor Licinius, the brother-in-law of Constantine, whom the latter blamed for the continuance of this anti-Christian situation, that Helena was entrusted with the mission to Palestine.

The Emperor's mother arrived at Jerusalem and as St Paulinus of Nola [353-431 AD] tells us, began an exhaustive investigation, asking the aid of Christians and Jews.5 With the aid of a local Jew who acted as guide [later on he was baptised and took the name of Quiriacus]6 the site of the tomb was discovered,7 and the Roman soldiers who accompanied her began to demolish the pagan temples built over the burial spot of Jesus.

They removed the earth that had been used to cover it, and the three crosses and other objects, including the title that Pilate had put on the cross of Jesus, the nails and the spear that had been used to pierce Jesus' heart, were found nearby in a grotto. The celebrated German Catholic scholar James Gretzer [1562-1624] notes that it was customary for the Jews to bury the instruments of death with the corpses of malefactors.8

Certainly, considering the speed with which the bodies of Jesus and his two companions were removed from their crosses before the approaching Feast there seems no reason to doubt, as Cardinal Newman says,9 that after Joseph of Arimathaea begged Pilate to let him have the body and place it in a neighbouring tomb, the cross of Jesus and the two thieves, as well as the corpses of the two thieves, had hastily been thrown into the ground at the place where they were crucified.

Discovery of the Cross

This is how Eusebius describes the sight that greeted the onlookers as the tomb of Christ came to light after the demolition of the stone work, the temple of Venus, and the earthworks that had been piled up on top of the site:

'And when another level appeared, that is the ground that lay below the former level, then the majestic and all-holy memorial of our Saviour's resurrection appeared beyond all doubt. The cave, a holy of holies, imaged the Saviour's resurrection: after having been sunk in darkness, it came to light again and for those who saw it, presented a history of the wonders that had been done there, witnessing by facts more eloquently than by any voices, the Resurrection of the Saviour'.10

St John Chrysostom [347-407AD] in his Homilies on St John (written in 394) agrees that the true cross was identified by the title that Pilate had fixed to it. St Ambrose [339-397 AD] writing in 395 says that the inscription by Pilate was found attached to the cross of Christ.11

Daniel Papebroch, the editor of the entry in the account of the Acta Sanctorum that contains much of the relevant material on this subject, considers that Ambrose's statement 'the inscription: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews was attached to the upright beam of the cross' was based on 'conjecture' rather than on 'an ancient text'.12

Inscription lay separate

Certainly, the more common tradition for which there is documentary evidence, [see St Paulinus of Nola, 353-431 AD, St Sulpicius Severus, 363-420 AD, Theodoret, 391-458 AD, Rufinus Tyrannius 345-410 AD, Socrates 380-450 AD, and Sozomon who wrote in 440 AD] is that the wooden board with the title Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews in latin, greek and hebrew was lying separate from the crosses. As the empress had no way of knowing which one of the three crosses lying higgledy-piggledy in the grotto ['tria patibula confusa reperin'] had been the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem [died 334 AD] decided to take the three to a well-known lady in Jerusalem lying at the point of death. She was touched by two of the crosses to no effect, but when the third cross touched her, she stood up, perfectly healed, thus resolving the dilemma.13

Eusebius, in a well-known passage in his Commentary on the Psalms, refers to 'the miracles that have been performed in our times at the Sepulchre and the Marjorie of our Saviour [another name for the Shrine built by Constantine over Golgotha also known as Ad Crucem - At the Cross].14 Cardinal Newman, in his Two Essays quoted above considers that Eusebius was referring, among other things, to the miracles associated with the recognition of the cross.

Cyril of Jerusalem

St Cyril [315-386 AD] was about eleven years old at the time of Helena's visit to Jerusalem. Ordained priest in Jerusalem, he gave his famous Catechetical Lectures in 347 AD in the very Church of the Resurrection which had been built by Constantine following on his mother's discovery of the tomb of Jesus and the site of Golgotha. In his lectures given in Lent to the Catechumens to be baptised on Holy Saturday, he mentions the discovery of the cross though not the circumstances. To anyone who presumes to deny our Lord's crucifixion he says 'this very place which all can see refutes you, this blessed Golgotha on which, because of Him who was crucified on it, we are now gathered'. He declares that the very wood of the cross is a witness to Jesus: "The holy wood of the cross which is to be seen amongst us to this day is His witness. By means of those whose faith has led them to do so, portions of it have been taken from this place [Golgotha] and have been taken to the four corners of the world'.15

An inscription found at Tixter, near Setif in Algeria and dated nine years after St Cyril gave his Lenten lectures [359] mentions a relic 'de ligno crucis' - 'of the wood of the Cross'.16 There were tiny fragments of the True Cross in Cappadocia in the late 370s during the life time of St Macrina;17 at Antioch in 386/718 and in Italy and Gaul in 403.19

Was Helena there?

It would be remiss of me not to mention the reservations that the modern editors of Abbot Butler's Lives of the Saints have about the role of Helena in the discovery of the True Cross.20 Without denying the indisputable fact of the Cross's discovery, they argue that since the first reference to Helena's involvement is by St Ambrose in 395, 'Helena's share in the transaction amounted to no more than what we should gather from Aetheria's statement [in 385] when she speaks of 'the building which Constantine under his mother's auspices [sub praesentia matris suae] embellished with gold and mosaics and precious gems'.

The difficulty I have with that argument is that 'sub praesentia matris suae' cannot by any stretch of the imagination mean 'under his mother's auspices'. It means 'in the presence of his mother'. And if Helena had not been involved it would have been a simple matter for eyewitnesses to say so. None of the ancient texts denies Helena' role in the discovery, and in fact almost all the accounts testify to it.

Silence proves nothing

Some Protestant critics, too, have made much of the silence concerning Helena's discovery in some contemporary writings - especially from the fact that Eusebius does not mention Helena's discovery of the cross when he is writing of the discovery of the sepulchre and of Golgotha.

Silence in itself proves nothing. Eusebius [260-340 AD] does not mention St Anthony of Egypt [251- 356 AD], or Methodius of Tyre [died around 311 AD] who were his contemporaries, or the first century Roman martyr St Felicity, or St Perpetua [who died on March 7, 202 AD] yet even the most bigoted commentator would not dare deny that they existed. Eusebius is silent about Helena's visit to Jerusalem. Is it at all likely that she would visit Bethlehem and Mt Olivet and not Jerusalem?

Edward Gibbon21 and countless critics after him have cynically dismissed the evidence, citing the silence of the famous Pilgrim of Bourdeaux who visited Jerusalem in 333 AD. Yet the Pilgrim also is silent about the Church built by St Helena on Mt Olivet, which, as Cardinal Newman remarks,22 no right-minded scholar doubts.

What happened to the relics?

One part of the cross placed in a silver reliquary was entrusted to Bishop Macarius to be carefully preserved in Jerusalem. Another portion was forwarded to Constantine. Socrates the Byzantine historian [380-450 AD] states that the portion sent to the emperor was enclosed in a statue of himself which was placed on a porphyry column in the Forum of Constantine in Constantinople, so that the city might be protected by the presence of so powerful a relic of the Lord Jesus.23

The empress Helena had a sizeable portion of the true cross brought back to Rome and installed in the Church which she had built to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius in 312 AD. Dedicated as Sanctae Crucis in Jerusalem [the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem] it was on the site of her private residence that had previously formed part of an imperial villa. Commenced by Septimius Severus [died in 211 AD and completed by Heliogabulus [killed in 222 AD aged 18], this villa contained also a little amphitheatre and a circus.

Helena's faith and courage

The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is still to be seen in Rome. Despite modifications made over the centuries, the majesty of this fourth century shrine built originally as a memorial to the victory of the Cross over the pagan forces of Maxentius, and then as a resting place for the relics of the true cross, stands as a witness to the faith and courage of St Helena. This extraordinary woman was working as a maid in an inn [stabularia] in Bithynia when she met and married the future emperor Constantine Chlorus in 273 AD. At the age of around 65 in 312 AD she was baptised, and owing to her devotion the sites of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus were uncovered, and the Cross and other precious relics re-discovered.

Constructed, as the inscription in the pavement states, at least partially on a foundation of soil brought back from Jerusalem by the empress, the Basilica's prized possession are three pieces of the true cross each measuring about six inches which over the almost 1700 years since they were brought from Jerusalem by St Helena, have lain in various reliquaries, the most recent being a cross shaped one of silver designed and made by Giuseppe Valadier [1762- 1839].

A Never-failing Vice

OF all the causes
which conspire to
blind Man's erring
And misguide the mind;
What the weak head
with strongest bias rules,
Is pride:
the never-failing vice of fools.

-Alexander Pope [1688-1744] Catholic poet, satirist and polemicist

Captured by the Persians

When the Persian king Chosroes II captured Jerusalem in 614 AD the relic of the cross in its jewelled case was taken as a trophy and remained in Persian hands at Ctesiphon [near the site of present-day Baghdad]. The defeat of Persian forces in 621 AD by the imperial Byzantine army led eventually to the deposition of Chosroes who was murdered in 628 AD. His successor restored the wood of the Cross to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. On the 3rd of May 629 AD Heraclius handed the relic over to the patriarch Zacharias in the rebuilt Holy Sepulchre. The relic was still in its case, and the seals were intact. The emperor had attempted to carry the reliquary on his shoulders, while garbed in his royal robes. At the foot of Calvary he found himself unable to continue, and on the urging of Zacharias laid aside his royal garments and proceeded.

Cynical scepticism

It is sometimes charged, cynically, that the relics of the True Cross throughout the world if put together would make many crosses. John Calvin was quoted recently in an appallingly badly written article in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, as saying that 'if you gathered together all the remnants of the true cross they would fill a large ship'.24 In fact, like most things in this article the quote is inexact and the attribution incorrect. It was Erasmus [1466-1536] who complained that 'the portions of the true cross (are) enough if they were collected to freight a large ship'.25 Like the oft-repeated slander that most wars have been fought in the name of religion, this lie is easily rebutted. The relics claiming to be of the True Cross are well known, and identifiable. According to Donald Attwater (writing more that 60 years ago) if all the known relics were put together they would fall well short of even one cross, twelve feet long by eight feet wide.26

Feast of the Finding of the Cross

The feast of the Cross celebrated on September 14 to commemorates the finding of the True Cross by St Helena, and the consecration of the shrines built on the site of Golgotha and over the tomb of Jesus by Constantine, appears originally to have been a feast proper to the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. It gradually was introduced to many of the other Churches in Rome, and by the seventh century the feast had spread to the universal Catholic Church,27 probably prompted by the universal joy felt at the restoration of the relics to the Holy Sepulchre after their having been stolen by the Persians.

The pilgrim Theodosius who visited Jerusalem in 530 calls the feast on September 14, Inventio Crucis - The Finding of the Cross - a title that continues to this day

  1. See article by M. St Laurent in Adolphe Didron's Annales Archeologique.
  2. Vita Constantini, iii. 26ff.
  3. Not all the sources agree about the exact date of her visit. Socrates Historia Ecclesiastica. i 17ff, puts it in the year after the Nicene Council [325 AD] while the Alexandrine Chronicle [also known as the Chronicon Paschale] described by K.A. Kellner in his Haeortology as 'in such matters... very reliable' gives the day and the year for the discovery as September 14, 320. My difficulty with this earlier date is that it occurs before the death of Licinius, and it seems that the journey was not undertaken until after he had been killed in 324 AD. As the day on which the two Constantinian Basilicas - Ad Crucem [at the Cross] on Golgotha, and Anastasis [Resurrection] over the tomb were consecrated was September 14, I favour dating the discovery on September 14, 326.
  4. Epistle lviii, Patrologia Latina. Migne xx, 321: 'aestimantibus persecutionis auctoribus quod tollerent nobis fidem resurrectionis et crucis si loca sancta per idola polluissent.'
  5. Epistola ad Severum, xxxi.
  6. ee St Gregory of Tours, Liber Miraculorum. 1.5ff.
  7. Calvin derides the empress's motives, and says that she was driven by a 'stulta curiositas' [stupid curiosity] and 'ineptus religionis zelus' [false religious zeal]. See his De Reliquibus, p.276 quoted John Henry Cardinal Newman, op. cit. p.289.
  8. De Cruce Christie, tome 1, 1, 37.
  9. John Henry Cardinal Newman. Two Essays on Biblical and Ecclesiastical Miracles. [written 1842-1843] Longmans, 1918. Ed. p.287.
  10. Vita Constantini, iii. 28.
  11. Oratio de Obitu Theodsii.
  12. See 1866 ed. May, tomus prirnus. p.368.
  13. For the account of the discovery of the cross by Helena, see: Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica, i, 17: Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, i, 18: Sozomen. Historia Ecclesiastica, ii, 1: St Ambrose of Milan, Vita Theodosii, xlvi: Sulpicius Severus, Historia Sacra, ii, 34: Rufinus, Historia, 1,7,8: etc.
  14. Psalm lxxxvii, 13.
  15. Catechetical Writings.
  16. See New Catholic Encylopedia, McGraw Hill NY 1966 ed. 'Cross' vol.4 p.480.
  17. St Gregory of Nyssa, Migne PG xlvi, 489.
  18. See St John Chrysostom. Quod Christus sit Deus, Migne PG xlviii, 826.
  19. Paulinus of Nola, Epistles xxxi, xxxii.
  20. Burns and Oates, 1953 ed. vol. ii, p.222.
  21. Decline and Fall, ed. Ward Lock and Co. London, volume i, p.594 note 1.
  22. Op. cit. p.291.
  23. loc. cit.
  24. The Daily Telegraph, February 3, 1999, p.32.
  25. Commentary on St Matthew, xxiii, 27 See James Anthony Froude, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London 1899, p.129.
  26. The Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary. Cassell, London, 1931, p.137.
  27. See Ada Sanctorum, vol 14, May, tomus primus, p.369.

From "Annals Australasia" August 1999

Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files


Sean Ó Lachtnáin's Home Page