The Glorious Quest for the Sweet Wood and Sweet Nails
Book Pick: Relics From the Crucifixion
RELICS FROM THE CRUCIFIXION
Where They Went and How They Got There
By J. Charles Wall
Sophia Institute Press, 2016
144 pages, $14.95 paperback, $9.99 e-book,
Atop Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo stands 10 marble angels, bearing the instruments of Christ’s passion: the cross, nails, superscription, crown of thorns, lance, robe and Veronica’s veil.
These — and the Shroud of Turin — are all featured in Sophia Institute’s reprint of British writer J. Charles Wall’s 1910 book Relics of the Passion, now available to a new century of readers.
“The wood of the cross forms such an integral part of the history of Christendom that the greatest skeptic cannot but acknowledge its influence. Whether it is the actual wood on which Christ died or a premeditated fraud of the Emperor Constantine for political motives in no way alters the power it exercised. The finding of the Cross immediately affected the Roman Empire, and a little later the whole of Europe, not only in religion and politics, but in literature and all branches of art. It has stirred men’s minds as no other one thing has ever done, except the Divine Sacrifice. It created a fervor among Christians unknown and unequaled by any of the faiths of the world, not even excepting that of the Muslim. The Cross became the standard, not only of a creed, but of nations.”
In hoc signo vinces. Having received a vision of a cross, under which “sign you shall conquer,” Constantine attributed his victories over rivals to God and eventually legalized Christianity. Once peace settled upon Constantine’s Empire, legend says his mother, St. Helena, searched Jerusalem for the True Cross, and her discovery is celebrated by the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross each Sept. 14.
Tradition holds the True Cross was found not far from the Holy Sepulcher, where the former had allegedly been hastily discarded “because the Sabbath day was close at hand,” eventually buried amid the vicissitudes of Jerusalem’s history. Still, the first account of its rediscovery comes from Cyril of Jerusalem, some 20 years after the event, while contemporaneous accounts seem to focus on the tomb.
Wall goes on to discuss the history of the cross, including how it was divided among competing contenders, especially across medieval Europe. While admitting that the unscrupulous may have forged relics, Wall also contends that the total claimants to be pieces of the True Cross tally to only about one cubic foot of wood, a certainly reasonable volume for a device used as the “crude deathbed of the Son of God.”
The book covers the history of the cross, starting with traditions about its origins (via Eden and the Pool of Bethsaida) and focusing in detail on the centrality of its recovery during the Crusades. The volume also treats the legendary histories of the nails, the “INRI” board, the crown of thorns, the holy lance and grail, Veronica’s veil and (albeit too briefly) the Shroud of Turin.
Now, 117 years, two world wars, a Holocaust and a war on terror after the book was written, what is missing is an afterward. As Wall notes, Muslim persecution of Christians, along with seizure of the cross, fueled the Crusades. Some things don’t change, but the blood spilled in the 20th century should make us more reticent about even “heavenly causes.”
As we consider face coverings, we might remember that Veronica, “in defiance of public opinion, which would brand her as immodest, tore off her face veil — by which the female face is always covered in the Orient — and with it wiped the face of her Savior.”
And, after the German Final Solution and Vatican II, Wall’s occasional references to Jerusalem’s fate, for “His blood be upon us,” must not infer deicide. Lastly, we know a lot more (positively) about the shroud today.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.