Cross, Finding of the Holy

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The New Testament writers do not mention what became of the cross of Christ or the disposition of the crosses of the thieves crucified with Him. Justin Martyr and Origen, who both lived in Palestine before 350 and transmitted information concerning the Holy Land, say nothing about the cross.

Constantine. The Emperor constantine i in a letter of congratulation to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem offers to adorn the newly discovered tomb of Christ with a splendid church, but says nothing about the cross (Eusebius of Caesarea, Vita Const. 3.3032). The Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who visited the "hill of Golgotha" in 333 and described the Constantinian church with its lateral reservoirs, is equally silent about the cross [Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna 1866) 39:2223].

eusebius likewise says nothing of it in his Panegyric for Constantine's 30th anniversary (July 25, 335) where he praises the emperor's munificent adornment of the place of Christ's burial. The same silence prevails even in his Life of Constantine, where he describes the buildings marking the site of Christ's Resurrection (3.2540) and St. helena's pilgrimage to the holy places (3.4245).

Cyril of Jerusalem. In the course of a catechetical lecture in Lent of 350, St. cyril of jerusalem assures the candidates for Baptism that the cross of Christ has been in the Church's possession at Jerusalem for some time and that pieces broken off by Christians motivated by faith "had already been scattered throughout the land" (Cat. 4.10; 10.19; 13.4). In a letter to the Emperor constantius ii reporting the apparition of a luminous cross in the heavens over Jerusalem on May 7, 351, Cyril mentions the salvific wood of the cross discovered in the city during the reign of Constantine (Patrologia Graeca, 33:1167]. The conviction that the cross of Christ had been found spread widely in the Christian world of the second half of the fourth century and pieces of the cross were said to be in various places.

Cyril of Jerusalem's assertions were not fictional. An inscription found at Tixter near Setif in Algeria mentions a relic de ligno crucis in 359. But the statement of julian the apostate in his Contra Galileos accusing the Christians of "adoring the Cross" does not refer to the cross of Christ, but rather to the sign of the cross, which the faithful traced on their foreheads or with which they adorned the façade of their homes (Cyril of Alexandria, Cont. Jul. 6). There were pieces of the true cross in Cappadocia in the late 370s during the lifetime of St. macrina (Gregory of Nyssa, Patrologia Graeca, 46:489); at Antioch in 386 or 387 (John Chrysostom, Quod Chr. 10; Patrologia Graeca, 48:826); and in Italy and Gaul in 403 (Paulinus of Nola, Epist. 31.1; 32.11).

Aetheria (Egeria). Soon after the pilgrim Aetheria who assisted at the Veneration of the Cross in the Good Friday liturgy at Jerusalem, records the care exercised by two deacons to ensure that no one kissing the cross should bite into it in order to obtain a relic (Itinerarium 37.2). The prohibition of taking pieces of the cross must have been laid down by the bishop of Jerusalem after the first sojourn there of melania the elder, for on her return to Italy c. 400 she spoke about the cross to Paulinus of Nola; and it was doubtless on her testimony that in 403 Paulinus described the cross as remaining intact despite the removal of small particles (Epist. 31.6).

Aetheria is understood to have said that on the feast of the Dedication (Encaenia ) of the Basilica or Martyrium at Golgotha and in the nearly circular church of the Resurrection (Anastasis ), the anniversary of the finding of the cross of Christ was celebrated annually (Itin. 48). Thus the finding of the cross must have taken place on September 13 between 325 and 334; but it is surprising that Eusebius of Caesarea gives no positive support for this belief then current at Jerusalem. The seventh century Constantinopolitan Chronicon Paschale gives Sept. 14, 320, as the precise date for the discovery.

While Aetheria provides chronological information, she says nothing of the circumstances surrounding the finding of the cross; one would wish to have proof that more circumspection was shown in this matter than for the discovery of the "Ring of Solomon" or the "Cruet employed in the anointing of the kings of Israel," two relics offered at Jerusalem on Good Friday for the veneration of the faithful along with the cross and Pilate's inscription connected with it (Itin. 37.3). Mention of this custom is made about 530 in the Breviarius Hierosolymae and by the archdeacon Theodosius (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 39:154, 174).

The Legends. Four versions of the legend give the circumstances of the reappearance of the cross. In three of them, St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, leads the way to the excavations either on her own volition (Ambrose in 395, followed by Sozomen), or by divine inspiration (Paulinus of Nola in 403, Epist. 31.4; Rufinus of Aquileia, Hist. eccl. 1.7; Socrates, Hist. eccl. 1.17; George the Monk, Patrologia Graeca, 110:620), or at the request of Constantine (Malalas 13; Theophanes 1.25, 28; Cedrenus, Patrologia Graeca, 121:544).

St. ambrose is the first known author to mention this role of the empress (De ob. Theod. 4048), but his citation of Zechariah (14.20) in this connection concerning the nails of the crucifixion, with the same interpretation as that given by Sozomen, Cyril of Alexandria (Patrologia Graeca, 72:272 A) and Gregory of Tours (De glor. mart. 6), gives the impression that, as so often, he is here dependent on a Greek text. Jerome ridicules this interpretation of Zacharias's verse (Patrologia Latina, 25:1615 B).

Paulinus of Nola. Following Melania, Paulinus of Nola gives details unmentioned by Ambrose concerning St. Helena's activities: the empress engaged in her own investigations, then called wise Jews and Christians to Jerusalem for consultation and finally found herself embarrassed by the discovery of three crosses. She prayed for guidance and was inspired to bring each of the crosses into contact with the body of a dead man; the cross that restored life to the body could then be identified as the cross of Christ. sulpicius severus, relying on the narrative of Paulinus, does not credit Helena alone with this idea. The inspiration, he says, was received by all those who were puzzled by the difficulty of distinguishing the true cross from those of the thieves (Chron. 2.34.4).

Two other forms of the legend in which Helena is the principal actor mention a man as counseling the application of the cross to a person in death agony (Rufinus, etc.) or to a dead man (the legend of Judas-Cyriacus). According to Rufinus and the Byzantine chroniclers, it is Bishop Macarius who is said to have suggested the solution to Helena.

The Syrian legend. During the first half of the fifth century, there were three forms of the Helena legend in Syriac, which were known at least orally to Sozomen who questioned their reliability (Hist. eccl. 2.1.4). In these, not only did the emperor's mother consult the Jews she brought to Jerusalem, but she was given effective counsel by a certain Jew called Judas, who is thought to be the fifth and last Judeo-Christian bishop mentioned by Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 4.5.3). This strange person, capable of calling on a peculiar family tradition as witness to the messiahship of Christ, made known Golgotha, discovered the cross and applied it to a dead man who was being transported to be buried.

After Judas was baptized, Helena had him consecrated a bishop by Eusebius of Rome in the Holy City, and gave him the name of Cyriacus. In his new dignity, he was able to satisfy a further wish of the empress. By a Hebrew prayer he obtained a luminous sign from heaven that led to the discovery of the nails of the Crucifixion. This legend was preserved in Syriac, Greek and Latin.

The Latin recension found in an eighth century codex, which could have come from a Syrian colony established in the West, seems close to the Syrian version preserved in a seventh century manuscript; but its dependence on a Greek text is not completely excluded [J. Straubinger, Analecta Bollandiana, 32 (1910) 303]. The redaction of the notice devoted to Pope Eusebius in the liber pontificalis has retained from the Latin text the date of May 3 for the finding of the cross; but the date given in the Greek version is September 14. A Coptic fragment published by W. Spiegelberg likewise associates the Jew Judas with Helena in the discovery of the cross.

A fourth form of the legend, which does not mention Helena, Bishop Macarius or Judas Cyriacus, puts the Empress Protonica, the wife of the Emperor Claudius (4154), on the scene. She had, according to the legend, abandoned paganism in Rome after seeing miracles worked by St. Peter, and then departed with her two sons for Jerusalem, where St. James showed her the hill of Golgotha, which she forced the Jews to hand over to the Christians. Then her daughter died suddenly; the event was hailed as providential by her eldest son, for when the true cross was applied to the girl's body, life was restored.

This story, supposed to have been written by St. James and sent to the Apostles, is preserved as an appendix in the Preaching of Addai. Composed in Syriac, it was received by the Nestorians and Jacobites and was taken over by the Armenians and translated into their language. It apparently goes back to Eastern Syria (c. 390 or 400) and precedes the legend of Judas Cyriacus (see addai and mari, ss).

Actually the Syrian manuscripts juxtapose the Judas Cyriacus version to this fourth form of the legend or present the original Helena version as the narrative of the second finding of the cross. Furthermore, in the Greek, Syriac and Latin version, Judas tells Helena: "Behold more or less two hundred years the cross has been hidden"; these words refer to a burial of the cross under Trajan after its discovery by Protonica. St. cyril of alexandria had knowledge of this story of the first finding of the cross, since he remarks: "It has been said at different times that the Wood of the Cross has been discovered" (In Zach. 14.20).

John Chrysostom. These four versions of the legend were contradicted by St. Chrysostom in 386 or 387 (Patrologia Graeca, 48:826) and in 391 (Hom. in Joh. 85.1); he declared that "the Savior did not leave his Cross on earth, but took it with him into heaven, since he is to appear with his Cross in the second and glorious coming" (Patrologia Graeca, 49:403). This text repeats many similar ancient statements concerning the eschatological cross and applied to the figures of the cross traced on the apses of churches. A like opinion is stated in an interpolation in the recital of the pilgrimage of the archdeacon Theodosius in 530: the part of the cross that touched the body of Christ and was stained with His blood was taken up into heaven, and will appear in the Last Judgment (Itin. Hier. 1.64).

It has been said that the cross was concealed and found in the grotto that goes down 13 paces in one of the apses of the chapel of St. Helena, in the present church of the Holy Sepulcher. In this cavity, whose original purpose is disputed, but which is frequently filled with rain-water, the preservation of wood for two or three centuries would have been impossible.

Between at least 530, as the Breviarius of Jerusalem attests (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 39:153) and the episcopate of Sophronius of Jerusalem (Anacreontic Ode 20; Patrologia Graeca, 87: 3820), it was said that the three crosses had been found under the apse of the Martyrium of Constantine. The discovery of the nails followed that of the cross according to St. Ambrose, the Legend of St. Helena and that of Judas Cyriacus. Other discoveries followed: the Anonymous of Plaisance in 570 shows the sponge and the hyssop stalk mentioned in John 19.29 (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 39:173).

Jewish literature. The legend of Helena has an echo in Jewish literature. A recension of the Toledot Yeshu reports that the Rabbi Juda, chosen by the Jews of Jerusalem to be a wise man for the mother of Constantine, counseled the Jewish elders to bury three pieces of wood. After three days of fasting and prayer, Juda satisfied the empress by leading her to the hiding place. Asked to make known the cross of Jesus, he had a dead man brought and put in contact with each of the three crosses; and by the power of the name of God (Shem ha-Mephorash ) of which Juda possessed the secret, the dead man began to move at being touched by the first cross; at contact with the second, he lifted himself; and on contact with the third he was fully restored. Rabbi Juda thus showed himself devoted to his brethren, delivering them from vexations without apostatizing. With Alcimus, the man brought back to life, he showed himself an apostle "as Peter and Paul," acting for the good of his brethren without changing his religion. The redactor desired to deny the conversion of Judas Cyriacus as well as that of the Apostles Peter and Paul, while expressing his dislike for Christ and for the Christian veneration of the relics of the cross.

H. Vincent and F. Abel [Jerusalem, 2 (Paris 1914) 190] and D. Baldi [Enchiridion locorum sanctorum (Jerusalem 1955) 624, n.1.] interpret Eusebius's Laudes Constantini (9.6; Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte, Eusebius 1.221.16) as mentioning the cross; so does E. Richardson in his translation of the Post-Nicene Fathers [2d Ser. 1 (New York 1890) 594]. But there is no justification for this interpretation. H. Goussen has challenged the authenticity of the passages in Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechesis and Letter to Constantius, basing his complaint on the Armenian version [Über georgische Drücke und Handschriften die Festordnung und Hieligenkalender betreffend (München-Gladbach 1923) 32], but his objections are without substantial proof. The Feast of the Finding of the Cross on May 3 was suppressed for the Latin rite in 1960.

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[h. chirat]