September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.
The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.
The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.
The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.
While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.
The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.
Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”
Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”
May we do the same.
For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.