Theodoret in his Ecclesiastical History, Chapter xvii, gives the most detailed account of the finding of the True Cross:
When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple [of Venus] , which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord's sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole...
She had part of the cross of our Saviour conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity."
It is said that the Holy Nails with which Jesus was crucified were found with the Cross. According to some accounts, St. Helena took these back to Rome with her. One story says that she had them incorporated into the helmet and shield of her son, the Emperor.
St. Helena and St. Constantine ordered that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be built at the site of the discovery. In 335, a two-day festival was conducted to mark the dedication of the Church. The consecration occurred on September 13th, and on the 14th, the Cross was brought outside so that all the faithful gathered could pray before the True Cross on which their Savior died to save them. Can you imagine? It is this date, the date when the faithful were able to venerate, in person, the True Cross, that Holy Cross Day continues to be celebrated.
In 614, the Persians abducted the portion of the Cross that is encased at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The relic remained missing until it was recaptured in 628 by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. A year later, the cross was returned to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Other fragments of the Cross were further broken up and spread widely throughout the Christian world. St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote of it, "The holy wood of the Cross bears witness, seen among us to this day, and from this place now almost filling the whole world, by means of those who in faith take portions from it."
Unfortunately, this dispersal of the relics led numerous churches to claim that they possessed a part of the True Cross. So widespread was this claim that it led John Calvin to write the following criticism in his Traité Des Reliques:
There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poictiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.
Personally, I rather like the vision of small portions of the Cross on which Jesus gave His life for all the world being scattered throughout that world, among all the believers and followers of Christ. Of course, nobody wants to venerate a relic that isn't really a relic, and substituting a fraud is a terrible sacrilige on the part of those churches that have done so throughout the ages. Verifiable relics may be found at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Santa Croce in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, Pisa Cathedral, and Florence Cathedral, among other places. These by no means constitute the entire cross. No one knows where all the relics may be found. Perhaps that is best. I like to think that they could be anywhere, inspiring believers in the remotest corners of the world, hidden and obscured but still carrying their powerful message of the greatest story ever told.
Here are some ideas for celebrating Holy Cross Day in your family:
- Red is the liturgical color for the day. Why not have the family dress in red? Dress your home with red decorations: perhaps some flowers or a red tablecloth at the dinner table.
- Tell the story of the finding of the True Cross. Discuss what it might have been like to be there all those centuries ago, to find the very cross on which Jesus was crucified.
- Reflecting on the True Cross can help us to recall that these events really and truly happened. They are not just a story. The Cross is not just a metaphor. Jesus really bled and died on a real cross made of real wood. Set aside time today to focus on the significance of this reality. You might consider praying the stations of the cross at your church. Do, at least, take time to pray before an image of the crucified Christ.
- The True Cross was made of olive wood. Why not bring out any items in your home made from olive wood? You might use olive wood serving utensils or bowls at meals, for example. Touching the same kind of wood that the Cross was made from can make Jesus' Passion more viscerally real for us. You might also like to incorporate dishes with olives into your menus for the day.
- Sing hymns that speak about the cross. Some good examples are "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "The Old Rugged Cross," "Lift High the Cross," and "Beneath the Cross of Jesus."
- Discuss what the Cross means in your lives. Ask each family member what it means to them that Jesus died on Calvary for their sins.
- Foster discussion about the Cross and Jesus' Passion. Invite your kids to ask the "hard" questions: Why did Jesus have to die? What was crucifixion like? If you don't have the answers, commit to finding them out together with your kids. Write down your questions and ask your parish priest or pastor at the next opportunity.
- Watch The Passion of the Christ. Please note that this movie is very graphic and not appropriate for younger family members.
- Serve foods in the shape of crosses or that are decorated with crosses. Maybe some hot cross buns for breakfast or cross-shaped cookies at tea-time. A cherry pie with a cross cut into the top crust would incorporate both the cross symbolism and red, the liturgical color of the day. Many snackfoods, such as carrot sticks, celery, pretzel rods, and string cheese, can lend themselves to being made into crosses.
- Among Christians in the Middle East, a dish of lentils, eggplant, and pomegranate is traditional served on Holy Cross Day. Here is a recipe that I plan to try with my family this year.
- Legend has it that St. Helena found the burial place of the three crosses because it was marked with a fragrant plot of sweet basil. This would be a great time to use up the last of your basil harvest, perhaps in a dish of pesto!
- Jesus calls us to take up our own cross daily and follow Him. Take some time to share, as a family, what crosses you are carrying. Make sure each member of the family has an opportunity to share. Then, pray for each other. Ask Jesus, by the power of His Cross, to help you as you carry your own crosses in His Name.