Invention of the Holy Cross, painting by Ulrich Mair
I wish you a very happy feast. This is a special day dedicated to the Holy Cross, one of two in Catholic tradition. The Invention of the Holy Cross, which is celebrated on May third, commemorates events that occurred in the year 326.
St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine, travelled to Jerusalem to seek the True Cross. One of the Jewish scholars of the city knew its location; this was a secret that had been passed down through his family since the time of the Passion. He revealed it to Helen after interrogation; there, three crosses were found. To distinguish the cross of Jesus Christ from the crosses of the two thieves, each was held over a corpse. The deceased came to life upon contact with the True Cross. This Helen divided into three parts. One she sent to Rome and one to Constantinople. The third remained in Jerusalem. The man who revealed the location professed his faith; he later became a bishop and martyr, known as St. Quiriacus.
The relics of Our Lord’s Passion occupy a place within Catholic tradition close to that of holy images. Comparable veneration is given to each, and their histories are tightly interwoven. The Invention of the Holy Cross inaugurated the first great era of Christian art; Christian art emerged from underground along with the sacred wood. As described by the art historian Emile Mâle:
The discovery of the Holy Sepulcher and the True Cross in 326 must be considered as one of the great events in the history of Christianity; it was seen as a genuine miracle. Constantine immediately had magnificent monuments built on the site of rediscovered Calvary.... On the exact spot where the cross had been planted - the sacred spot regarded as the center of the world - a great cross was erected, encased in gold and decorated with precious stones.... Countless pilgrims from the remotest parts of the world flocked to Jerusalem. It was not enough for them to venerate the Holy Sepulcher; they visited all of the places consecrated by the Gospels, and everywhere they found magnificent basilicas.... All of these buildings were decorated with mosaics.Sacred art here is confident, dogmatic and grand; its figures no longer wear the disguises of Classical antiquity, as they did in the art of the catacombs. Pilgrims to Jerusalem collected holy oil from the shrines in tiny flasks of cast metal or painted glass and wore them around their necks. These were decorated with the same images seen in the mosaics. Wooden stamps for pressing the images into the dough for eulogia bread were also popular. Through portable objects such as these, the artistic traditions reached the ends of civilization.
Exaltation of the Holy Cross, painting by Martin Bernat
In the early seventh century, the army of the Persian king Chosroës took Jerusalem and carried away the relic of the True Cross. According to the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine:
Chosroës wanted to be worshipped as God. He built a gold and silver tower studded with jewels, and placed within it images of the sun, the moon and the stars. Bringing water to the top of the tower through hidden pipes, he poured down water as God pours rain, and in an underground cave he had horses pulling chariots around in a circle to shake the tower and produce a noise like thunder.... He sat on a throne in the shrine as the Father, put the wood of the cross on his right in place of the Son, and a cock on his left in place of the Holy Spirit.The emperor Heraclius led a crusade to recover the relic of the True Cross. Victory having been achieved, he personally restored the relic to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross commemorates these events.
I have a special devotion to both of these feasts. How beautiful that the Catholic Church celebrates the finding of things that have been lost, and the retaking of things that have been stolen. This seems especially relevant in our own age; at times I feel that most of my religion has been lost, or stolen from me.
Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, (Princeton University Press, 1993).
Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century, translated by Marthiel Matthews, (Princeton University Press, 1978).