Christ on the Cross by Pieter Pauwel Rubens

Christ on the Cross by Rubens.
1627, Oil on panel 51 x 38 cm.     
Courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.

 

 

Casket for a reliquary of the True Cross

Casket for a reliquary of the True Cross,
Roma, A.D. 817-24 (silver with partial     
gilding and niello; length 29.5 cm, width 
25 cm, height 10 cm, thickness of silver  
  c. 1.5 mm).  Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.

 

The True Cross
Written by Ron Loeffler

"Let us adore Christ our King, who hung upon the wood, and not the wood."
- Saint Ambrose

Of all the relics sought by Catholic faithful, none was the cause of more suffering, death and destruction than the "True Cross," the tree upon which Christ was hung.  Crucifixion was the Roman Empire's preferred method of dealing with offenders who were not Roman citizens.  It was a horrible punishment that inflicted unimaginable suffering as it slowly brought the life of the victim to an agonizing end.  I imagine the True Cross was desired by Christians because it was so closely associated with the Savior's final moments and atoning sacrifice.  Also, it had been stained by his sweat, blood and lymph.

As it is known today, the True Cross is a part of the crosses used to execute Christ on Golgotha.  It is encased in gold and studded with precious stones -- a far cry from the simplicity of the Gospel preached by Jesus and the Apostles, and much closer to the golden calf crafted by Aaron and the fickle Hebrew people while Moses was in the presence of God receiving the Decalogue.

To trace the story of the True Cross through the pages of Roman Catholic tradition and hagiography, we must first travel to ancient Britain in the latter half of the third century AD.  A Roman army under Constantius Chlorus was holding the land for the Empire.  Now in that time, the Roman political situation was quite unsettled.  It came to pass that Constantius was made a "Caesar."  With that appointment, he was compelled to cast off his legal concubine, a British barmaid called Helena, in order to take the Emperor's step daughter to wife.

Constantius had a son by Helena, Flavius Valerius Costantinus, born in Britain around 272 AD.  Canstantine, who received little in the way of education, took up soldering early in life.  He proved his valor in wars against Egypt and Persia.  When Constantius died, his troops made his son Caesar and but a year and a half later, Emperor.  A dutiful son, Emperor Constantine commanded that the Empire honor Helena as was due the mother of the sovereign.  It was about at this time that Helena, now 63 years old, converted to the Christian faith.

Constantine, together with his ally Licinius, eager to consolidate Christian support in all provinces, issued the Edict of Milan, extending religious toleration to all religions and ordering the restoration of Christian property seized during the persecutions.  This historic declaration, in effect, conceded the defeat of paganism.  After years of striving, Constantine defeated and eventually killed Licinius and became sole emperor.  He then declared himself a Christian and invited his subjects to join him in embracing the new faith.

The Cross appears to Constantine by Raphael Sanzio.

The Cross appears to Constantine by Raphael Sanzio.
Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.

Many historians question the sincerity of his "conversion," calling it a consummate stroke of political wisdom.  Certainly, he seldom conformed to the ceremonial requirements of his new faith following his conversion.  His letters to Christian bishops make it clear that he really was not concerned over the theological differences which so agitated Christendom.  Throughout his reign, he treated bishops as political aides.  He summoned them, presided over their councils and agreed to enforce whatever opinions their majority might formulate.

When he moved the seat of his authority to Constantinople, he supported many Christian projects, including financing his mother's Christian philanthropies.  Constantine sent his mother to the Holy Land, where she was to search out the cross upon which Christ had been crucified some 300 years earlier.  A former barbarian who had spent most of her life following Rome's legions, Helena knew how to get what she wanted.  She convened a group of Rabbin from various places throughout Palestine and demanded they tell her where the cross was hidden, under threat of torture.  These men either could not or would not tell and she ordered them burned alive.  After that, they delivered up a man whom they promised could take her to where the "True Cross" lay hidden.  This man, named Judas, also refused to cooperate, so the lady who became known as "Saint Helena" sentenced him to death by starvation.  After only six days without food, Judas took her to the place where he said the cross which had borne the dying Jesus was hidden - on the site of a pagan temple dedicated to Venus.

Why would the Jewish religious leaders, who were so concerned that the followers of Jesus might try to sneak His body out of the tomb in the dark of night, that they demanded a full guard of Roman soldiers watch over it, not have been more thorough in their treatment of the tree upon which the Messiah died?  After all, if we are to believe the legend, these Jews removed the True Cross, apparently along with at least two others and hid them away from the cultish followers of Jesus.  If they did not want the Christians to have the cross as a relic, why hide it?  Why not simply burn it up and scatter the ashes?  But even if they indeed did bury the cross, why would they continue to tell folks, during the following 300 years, where it was hidden?  These questions are worth considering.

Catholic mythology tells us that the searchers offered a prayer, which was immediately followed by a movement of the earth.  A perfume filled the air and miraculously converted Judas.  Helena had the temple destroyed and set Judas to digging.  When he had dug down about 20 feet or so, he discovered three crosses, which he placed before the Emperor's mother.

Helena now, had the "True Cross" but how to tell which of the three was THE one?  Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, came up with a suggestion: why not test the three relics to see which had miraculous powers?  They used a sick woman in their testing.  She was made to lie on each of the three crosses in turn; the one that healed her would be the True Cross.  It was not until she lay on the third cross that she was miraculously healed.  This then, had to be the cross upon which Jesus had been sacrificed.  A letter of Paulinus to Severus, incorporated into the Breviary of Paris, declares that Helena herself came up with the idea for discovering which was the True Cross.  She had the body of a dead man exhumed and brought to her.  She then touched his body with each of the crosses and when the wood of the third cross made contact, the man was restored to life.  In another tradition - Rome has so many traditions - Ambrose claims that the "titulus" was still on the real cross, which I would imagine, obviate the necessity for any validating tests.

If one thinks a bit upon this tale, it becomes apparent that, in common with so many other stories concerning ancient "saints" and things, that despite the intervening centuries, there often seemed to be someone who would know just where to look for the desired object.  In the case of the True Cross, Judas knew that it was buried, along with two other crosses, some 20 feet below the temple of Venus, which likely had been constructed before he was born.  Also, one considers the soldiers of Rome to have been practical men, certainly unlikely to go to the trouble and expense of making crosses for one-time use, after which they were discarded.  After all, they used a lot of crosses in their work to defend the Empire.  When Rome's legions put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus, in the year 71 BC, they lined up Appian Way from Capua to Rome with 6,000 crosses bearing former members of the rebel army.  Emperor Augustus boasted he had captured 30,000 runaway slaves and that he had crucified every one of them who was not claimed (W.S. Davis, "Influence of Wealth in Imperial Rome," New York, (1913) p.211).  When Varus, governor of Syria, took his troops to Palestine (6 AD) to put down one of the innumerable Jewish rebellions, he crucified 2000 rebels.  In putting down the Jewish rebellion which resulted in the destruction of the Temple, so many Jews were crucified that Josephus was prompted to write that "the multitude of these was so great that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses were wanting for the bodies."  (Josephus, ix 3)   Josephus informs us that 1,197,000 Jews died in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, but Tacitus says it was no more that 600,000 (Tacitus, v. 13).

With all the crosses used during the Roman dealings with Palestine and the three hundred year interval between the crucifixion of our Lord and Helena's serendipitous discovery, does it not seem likely that what she was given was just any old cross, made "holy" more by her eagerness to lay hands on the True Cross than by any blessings attributable to the Lord's passion?  Certainly, the methods she employed to locate the cross would have brought no joy to our Lord.

After raising churches at the site and in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives, Helena returned to Constantinople, apparently taking part of the True Cross to her son and leaving the rest in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


St. Helena by Cima da Conegliano.

St. Helena by Cima da Conegliano
Courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art


Dome atop the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by Mike DuBose.

Dome - Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Photograph by Mike DuBose/UMNS


Helena died in Rome in either 326 or 328 AD.  According to Orthodox tradition, Constantine put off receiving baptism until the last days of his life, in accordance with the custom of that time.  When he sensed the approach of death, we are told he received this great mystery with reverence and peacefully died during prayer on the 21st of May, 337 AD.  The Russian Orthodox Church considers both Constantine and Helena, Saints and equals of the Apostles.

The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us that the miraculous discovery of the True Cross by Helena was not reported in early church writings until some 20 years after the event:

"A portion of the True Cross remained at Jerusalem enclosed in a silver reliquary; the remainder, with the nails, must have been sent to Constantine, and it must have been this second portion that he caused to be enclosed in the statue of himself which was set on a porphyry column in the Forum at Constantinople; Socrates, the historian, relates that this statue was to make the city impregnable.  One of the nails was fastened to the emperor's helmet, and one to his horse's bridle, bringing to pass, according to many of the Fathers, what had been written by Zacharias the Prophet: "In that day that which is upon the bridle of the horse shall be holy to the Lord"  (Zach., xiv, 20).  Another of the nails was used later in the Iron Crown of Lombardy preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Monza.  Eusebius in his life of Constantine, describing the work of excavating and building on the site of the Holy Sepulchre, does not speak of the True Cross.  In the story of a journey to Jerusalem made in 333 (Itinerarium Burdigalense) the various tombs and the basilica of Constantine are referred to, but no mention is made of the True Cross.  The earliest reference to it is in the "Catecheses" of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (P.G., XXXIII, 468, 686, 776) written in the year 348, or at least twenty years after the supposed discovery.)  (Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.  Electronic version copyright 1997 by New Advent, Inc.)

The rest of the True Cross remained in Jerusalem until 614 AD, when Chrosroes II of Persia captured Jerusalem and moved the relic to his homeland.  The Roman Emperor Heraclius made war on Chrosroes and in 627 regained the cross, taking it first to Constantinople and then returning it to Jerusalem.  In another one of those wonderful fantasies so dear to the Roman heart, we are told of another miracle accredited to the True Cross:

"Heraclius, who wished to carry the Holy Cross upon his own shoulders on this occasion, found it extremely heavy, but when, upon the advice of the Patriarch Zacharias, he laid aside his crown and imperial robe of state, the sacred burden became light, and he was able to carry it to the church."  (Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.  Electronic version copyright 1997 by New Advent, Inc.)

Around 1009, Christians hid the cross and it remained hidden until 1099, during the First Crusade.  Christians retained ownership of the True Cross until 1187, when Saladin defeated Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 AD.  It was reported that, after the fall of Jerusalem, Saladin tied the True Cross to the tail of his horse and rode through the streets of Jerusalem dragging it behind him.

We don't hear much more about the True Cross, though stories of relics abound.  The Catholic Encyclopedia calls upon several early church documents to support its statement that the True Cross was cut up into small relics and scattered throughout Christendom.  The fragments, we are told, were so small that Paulinus, who was given a piece of it enclosed in a golden vial, was moved to describe it as being so small it almost was an atom ("in segmento pene atomo hastulae brevis munimentum praesentis et pignus aeternae salutis") (Epist. Xxxi ad Severum, quoted in Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.  Electronic version copyright 1997 by New Advent, Inc.)

This idea would appear to conflict with the fable of Heraclius' inability to bear it's weight until he had removed his crown and the account of Saladin's ride through the streets of Jerusalem, dragging the cross behind his horse.

Soon after the discovery and dismemberment of the "True Cross," what had been a private, cultish adoration of the wood grew into a solemn public rite.  By the time of the Second Council of Nicea, such practices had grown so widespread that the bishops were forced to address it:

"The second Council of Nicea, among other precepts that deal with images, lays down that the Cross should receive an adoration of honour, "honorariam adorationem". . . To the pagans who taunted them with being as much idolaters as they accused the pagans of being towards their gods, they replied that they took their stand on the nature of the cult they that it was not latria, but a relative worship, and the material symbol only served to raise their minds to the Divine Type, Jesus Christ Crucified (cf. Tert., "Apol," xvi; Minucius Felix, "Octav.," ix-xii).  Wherefore St. Ambrose, speaking on the veneration of the Cross, thought it opportune to explain the idea: "Let us adore Christ, our King, who hung upon the wood, and not the wood" (Regem Christum qui pependit in ligno . . . non lignum. -- "In obit.  Theodosii," xlvi).  The Western Church observes the solemn public veneration (called the "Adoration") on Good Friday."  (Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.  Electronic version copyright 1997 by New Advent, Inc.)

And with that, as in with so many other heretical beliefs and practices seen in today's Roman Catholic Church, the Roman hierarchy effectively washed its hands of responsibility.  After all, what matter that Catholics continued to treat the bits and pieces of what they called the "True Cross" as objects of worship, they had explained that was not the thing to do and that, in any case, the adoration tendered the Cross is not the same as that offered to Almighty God.

We know there are many relics of the "True Cross" scattered around the Catholic world, and we know some of the Catholic fables concerning the miraculous ability of these bits and pieces of old wood to not only heal the infirm, but to actually restore life to the dead.  And there are innumerable accounts of the relics of bits and pieces of dead Catholic "saints" with the same remarkable powers.

Casket for a reliquary of the True Cross.

Casket for a reliquary of the       
True Cross - Roma, 9th Century.
Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.   

Reliquary for the head of Saint Sebastian.

Reliquary for the head of Saint       
Sebastian - Roma, 7th-9th Century.
Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.        

Let us examine the Catholic use of these wonderful artifacts.  As in so many other ways, what the Roman Catholic Church preaches and what she does are two very different things.  The Roman Catechism attests that the RCC has been charged by the Lord to heal the sick.

1509. "'HEAL the sick!"[Mt 10:8.]  The Church has received this charge from the Lord and strives to carry it out by taking care of the sick as well as by accompanying them with her prayer of intercession.  She believes in the life-giving presence of Christ, the physician of souls and bodies.  This presence is particularly active through the sacraments, and in an altogether special way through the Eucharist, the bread that gives eternal life and that St. Paul suggests is connected with bodily health.  [Cf. Jn 6:54, 58; 1 Cor 11:30.]"  (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

From the above citation, we see that Rome apparently believes that the sacraments are a primary method for applying the "life-giving presence of Christ" to those who are ill in both body and spirit.  I doubt and believer would disagree that it is through Christ our souls are healed or that He certainly has the power to correct any physical infirmity.  On the other hand, it seems few believers would accept that Christ's primary mission on earth and before God is to cure our children of the mumps or us of warts.  There is no mention anywhere in Scripture that faith in Jesus Christ affords any guarantee of perfect physical health.  In fact, God specifically let Paul know that there are situations when He prefers to leave His children in their infirmities.  (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)  Certainly, if faith, even great faith, were an infallible means to good health, then so whom we have considered good and godly believers must have been deficient in their faith.

I know that the Catholic church operates uncountable hospitals, clinics, hospices, shelters and who knows what other agencies for helping the aged and the infirm, and I thank God for that.  On the other hand, one must wonder why that RCC, having in its possession not only relics of the miraculous True Cross, but also so many saintly relics, does not take these "proved" agencies for healing the afflicted out of her churches, cathedrals and basilicas and place them instead in the hands of medical doctors and clinicians who might use their vaunted miraculous powers to bring respite and healing to the infirm?  Can it be that Rome, in her wordiness, prefers to keep her gold-encased scraps of wood and the bones of her "saints" where they might attract the faithful to kneel before them and to tender "sacrificial" offerings to them?  Can it be that Rome is more interested in keeping control her wonderful possessions, which she declares serve only to focus our prayers and spiritual attention on the Lord, than in honoring her own teaching to heal the sick?  Imagine, if you will, how wonderful it would be if a relic of the True Cross, which we are told by Catholic hagiography actually restored a dead man to life, were to be installed in a Leprosarium, or a hospital specializing in the care and treatment of the worst forms of cancer.  No need for magnetic resonance scanners, or x-ray machines.  No noxious chemotherapy or radiation treatments.  Just touch the afflicted one time with the wood of the "True Cross" and send them home.

Is the Roman Catholic church that callous?  Or could it be that the Roman hierarchy know full well the miracles attributed to these things are nothing more than fables and that it is faith in Christ and not in things which both heals (according to the will of God) and saves?

There are at least four relics of the True Cross in the United States, probable more.  One is in St. Helena Catholic Church in the Bronx.  Another is in Holy Angels Catholic Church in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.  There is a third splinter in Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross.  The fourth piece was given to the Archdiocese of Chicago last year, but I cannot recall which church it went to.  No problem, a call to the chancery should serve to locate the relic.  A Catholic correspondent informs me there are relics at the Precious Blood Monastery in Watertown, NY and the The Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, NY, New York City (Bronx), Boston and Chicago are very large cities, I do not know how big those other towns are.  Surely many millions of Catholics, and millions more non-Catholics, live within commuting distance of these six RCC churches.  Yet I have never read a single verified account of one person being healed of anything as a consequence of contact with one of these holy splinters.

I would like to know where I might find an account, authenticated by a reputable authority, of a single healing brought about by contact with one of these relics.  According to its catechism, your church is committed to healing and service.  Show us how they have used the awesome power of the Cross to heal someone of anything.  If you can not do that, then don't you think it may be time to take a close look at the other things the Magisterium would have you accept as a matter of faith?

I urge all who read these words to turn aside from the pagan practices and false hope of the Roman Catholic church.  Heed the words of the Lord:

"Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.  Be not ye therefore partakers with them."  - Ephesians 5:6-7.

If you are in some way physically afflicted, do not turn to a piece of wood or a bit of bone for healing, seek instead to please the Lord God, for it is only through His mercy that one day you might cast off your imperfect body and put on the glorified body Christ has promised to all believers.  As you wait, perhaps you might profit from meditating on the words of Paul:

"Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."  - 2 Corinthians 12:10.

 


Subject Gallery

Credits:
Thanks to Chaplain (LTC) Robert M. Santry (United States Army Aviation Center, Aviation Center Chaplain) for giving me the idea to create this page.  However, this is Not to imply that he necessarily agrees with the content of this page.

Christ on the Cross, painting by Pieter Pauwel Rubens.  1627, Oil on panel, 51 x 38 cm - Rockox House, Antwerp.  Courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.  Used by permission of Emil Kren; image can not be used without written permission from the Web Gallery of Art - http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/welcome.html

Casket for a reliquary of the True Cross - Roma, A.D. 817-24 (silver with partial gilding and niello; length 29.5 cm, width 25 cm, height 10 cm, thickness of silver c. 1.5 mm).  The Vatican Museums - The Apostolic Library Sacred Museum; Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.  Used by permission of Michael Olteanu; image can not be used without written permission of Christus Rex, Inc. - http://www.christusrex.org/

The True Cross, written by Ron Loeffler.  Used by permission of Ron Loeffler; can not be used without written permission of the author.  To read more of Ron's articles, click to - http://www.sxws.com/charis/index.html

The Cross appears to Constantine, painting by Raphael Sanzio.  Sala di Constantino, The ceiling: Triumph of Christianity over Paganism - The Vatican.  Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.  Used by permission of Michael Olteanu; image can not be used without written permission from Christus Rex, Inc. - http://www.christusrex.org/

Saint Helena, painting by Cima da Conegliano.  1495, Panel - National Gallery of Art, Washington.  Courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.  Used by permission of Emil Kren; image can not be used without written permission of the Web Gallery of Art - http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/welcome.html

The dome atop the Church of the Holy Sepulcher rises above Jerusalem's ancient walled city.  The church is considered to contain the sites of Christ's crucifixion, entombment and resurrection.  Photograph by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service - Photo number ED-006.  Used by permission of Mike DuBose; image can not be used without written permission of the United Methodist News Service.
The United Methodist News Service - http://www.umns.umc.org/

Casket for a reliquary of the True Cross - Roma, 9th Century (silver gilt; height 30 cm, width 21 cm, depth 6.2 cm, thickness of silver c. 1.5mm).  Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.  Used by permission of Michael Olteanu; image can not be used without written permission of Christus Rex, Inc. - http://www.christusrex.org/

Reliquary for the head of Saint Sebastian - Roma, 7th-9th Century (silver with partial gilding and niello; height 19.5 cm, diameter 20.5 cm, thickness of silver c. 3 mm).  Courtesy of Christus Rex, Inc.  Used by permission of Michael Olteanu; image can not be use without written permission of Christus Rex, Inc. - http://www.christusrex.org/

Background pattern courtesy of the

Web page design and content - Eric Shindelbower