Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
The relic(s) of the True Cross has inspired my curiosity since the earliest period of my conversion. It was, in fact, holy relics and artifacts that had much to do with my decision to become a Catholic. And why not? Who isn’t astounded at the objects the Church still possesses after 2000 years of history?
We have the chalice of the Last Supper, and Benedict XVI was the last pope to use it, even speaking the words of the ancient liturgy, “this holy cup” while using it. There are also the relics of the three kings who adored Jesus at his birth, located in Cologne. And the Vatican still has the actual chair of St. Peter—the actual chair he sat on as bishop of Rome. Many folks didn’t realize until recently that we still have the Crown of Thorns, which was held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
We have so many of these, and it is remarkable how captivating they can be, and how much credibility they can bring to the Catholic Church. Every single time I go to Rome with non-Catholics or fallen away family and friends, I take them to the Basilica of the Holy Cross. They ask where we’re headed and I say, “Santa Croce. It means ‘holy cross.’ Can you guess what’s there?”
They’re astonished to see one of the nails used in the crucifixion, the sign above Jesus’s head written in three languages, and a considerable chunk of the True Cross. None of them stop me and ask for the nearest RCIA or the nearest priest, but they become absolutely wowed at the reality that what they are looking at is a real, physical piece of evidence that confirms, at the very least, the historicity of our Faith.
The relics of the Cross are powerful, and they’re one of history’s most interesting artifacts because they represent a physical link to the body of the Savior. How was it preserved, though, since the liturgical calendar celebrating the “Finding of the True Cross” sort of gives us the impression that it was once lost?
The Cross itself was said to have been unearthed, along with two others, by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, at the site of Golgotha in Jerusalem. It’s widely agreed and preserved among documents (particularly the histories of Socrates of Constantinople) that Helena greatly treasured the relics of the Passion, and personally oversaw much of the excavation and recovery of the riches of our Faith and the discovery of many holy sites.
The power of the cross of Christ was revealed as the “True Cross” when it was used to miraculously resuscitate a dead youth, confirming its holy powers. The wood was brought back to Constantinople where it was coveted by many.
But there’s a nifty legend about the origins of the True Cross, too, that sparks imaginations. It’s called the “Golden Legend,” and its popularization came from Jacopo de Voragine, Bishop of Genoa in the 13th century. It generally flows like this:
The True Cross either came from three trees which grew from three seeds from the “Tree of Mercy” which Seth collected and planted in the mouth of Adam’s corpse (wow!), or the True Cross came from a tree that grew from part of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Seth planted on Adam’s grave and it stayed there. Also according to Voragine, the tree was cut down, and the wood used to build a bridge that the Queen of Sheba used on her journey to meet King Solomon. She, so rapt with its beauty, told Solomon that the wood from the bridge would bring about a new covenant with God’s. Solomon had the timber buried. After the right amount of time, the wood was recovered and made into the cross used to crucify Jesus Christ. The bishop then described the historical account passed by Socrates of Constantinople.
Do many people accept this legend? Evidently, yes, since it is told scene-by-scene in a famous set of 15th-century frescoes in Arezzo. But we have no other earlier references to the Golden Legend, and the not-Latin speaking branches of our Faith have never weighed in. So, that’s that.
But, the factoids just get started with Helena. The account of her finding the True Cross is almost universally accepted, mentioned by most Early Church and medieval historians. Early Christian pilgrims that visited the Holy Land (a woman named Egeria, famously) have remarked about the reliquary of the True Cross, and others also wrote about the lance that pierced Jesus’s side and the pillar he was scourged at. The cross, either a whole plank or a large fragment, traded hands during the successive crusades, coming into the hands of European and Muslims.
Throughout this history, the cross was divided and disbursed. Actually, disbursal of the True Cross occurred many years before the crusades, since Cyril of Jerusalem remarked that the “whole earth is full of the relics of the Cross of Christ.”
In the Holy Land today, the Greek Orthodox Church has a small True Cross relic shown at the foot of the site of Golgotha, within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Syriac Orthodox Church also has a small relic of the True Cross in St. Mark Monastery, Jerusalem.
History’s experts generally agree that the small shards Catholics sometimes see, perhaps the size of a small splinter, are from the chunk that was kept in Constantinople since the fourth crusade of Constantinople brought the West an incalculable number of relics and historical artifacts. What’s really cool is that in 1997, a study examined four different shards around the world which claimed to be from the True Cross. One of these was from Santa Croce in Rome. The study came back and said they each came from the same olive tree!
Since the middle ages, accounts and record keeping of the wood believed to be the True Cross has been consistent. Reason suggests that if the cross found by Helena was indeed the True Cross, then the remnants of that wood—of which a great deal of attention is given—is truly the cross that our Savior hung and paid for our debt on (Colossians 2:14). But ultimately, belief in the True Cross comes in what the cross means. In the words of St. Peter, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”