Feast of The Finding of the Holy Cross
by Dom Prosper Gueranger 1870
It was most just that our Divine King should show Himself to us with the sceptre of His power, to the end that nothing might be wanting to the majesty of His empire. This sceptre is the Cross; and Paschal Time was to be the Season for its being offered to Him in glad homage. A few weeks back, and the Cross was shown to us as the instrument of our Emmanuel’s humiliation, and as the bed of suffering whereon He died; but, has He not, since then, conquered Death? and what is His Cross now, but a trophy of His victory? Let it then be brought forth to our gaze; and let every knee bend before this sacred Wood, whereby our Jesus won the honour and praise we now give Him!
On the day of His Birth at Bethlehem, we sang these words of the Prophet Isaias: A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us, and His government is upon His shoulder (Is. ix. 6. The Introit of the Third Mass for Christmas Day). We have seen Him carrying this Cross upon His shoulder, as Isaac carried the wood for his own immolation; but now, it is no longer a heavy burthen. It is shining with a brightness that ravishes the eyes of the Angels; and, after having received the veneration of man, as long as the world lasts, it will suddenly appear in the clouds of heaven, near the judge of the living and the dead, a consolation to them that have loved it, but a reproach to such as have treated it with contempt or forgetfulness.
Our Saviour did not think the time between His Resurrection and Ascension a fitting one for glorifying the Instrument of His victory. The Cross was not to be brought into notice, until it had subjected the world to Him Whose glory it so eloquently proclaimed. Jesus was three days in the tomb; His Cross is to lie buried unknown to men, for three centuries: but it is to have its Resurrection, and the Church celebrates this Resurrection today. Jesus would, in his own good time, add to the joy of Easter by miraculously revealing to us this sacred monument of His love for mankind. He intrusts it to our keeping, it is to be our consolation, as long as this world last: is it not just, that we should love and venerate it?
Never had Satan’s pride met with a humiliation like that of his seeing the instrument of our perdition made the instrument of our salvation. As the Church expresses it in her Preface for Passiontide: “he that overcame mankind by a Tree, was overcome by a Tree.” Thus foiled, he vented his fury upon this saving Wood, which so bitterly reminded him, both of the irresistible power of his Conqueror, and of the dignity of man who had been redeemed at so great a price. He would fain have annihilated the Cross; but knowing that this was beyond his power, he endeavoured to profane it, and hide it from view. He therefore instigated the Jews to bury it. At the foot of Calvary, not far from the Sepulchre, was a deep hole. Into this was the Cross thrown, together with those of the two Thieves, the Nails, the Crown of Thorns, and the Inscription, or Title, written by Pilate. The hole was then filled up with rubbish and earth, and the Sanhedrim exulted in the thought of its having effaced the memory of the Nazarene, Who could not save Himself from the ignominious death of the Cross.
Forty years after this, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, the instruments of God’s vengeance. The Holy Places were desecrated by the idolaters. A small temple to Venus was erected on Calvary, and another to Jupiter over the Holy Sepulchre. By this, the pagans intended derision; whereas, they were perpetuating the knowledge of two spots of most sacred interest. When peace was restored under Constantine, the Christians had but to remove these pagan monuments, and their eyes beheld the holy ground that had been bedewed with the Blood of Jesus, and the glorious Sepulchre.
As to the Cross, it was not so easily found. The sceptre of our Divine King was to be raised up from its tomb by a royal hand. The saintly Empress Helen, Constantine’s Mother, was chosen by heaven to pay to Jesus, and that, too, on the very spot where he had received His greatest humiliations, the honours which are due to Him as the King of the world. Before laying the foundations of the Basilica of the Resurrection, this worthy follower of Magdalene and the other holy women of the Sepulchre was anxious to discover the Instrument of our Salvation. The Jews had kept up the tradition of the site where it had been buried: the Empress had the excavations made accordingly. With what holy impatience must she not have watched the works! and with what ecstasy of joy did she not behold the Redeeming Wood, which, though not, at first, distinguishable, was certainly one of the three Crosses that were found! She addressed a fervent prayer to the Saviour, who alone could reveal to her which was the trophy of his victory; the Bishop, Macarius, united his prayers with hers; and their faith was rewarded by a miracle, that left them no doubt as to which was the true Cross.
The glorious work was accomplished, and the Church was put in possession of the instrument of the world’s Redemption. Both East and West were filled with joy at the news of this precious discovery, which heaven had set on foot, and which gave the last finish to the triumph of Christianity. Christ completed His victory over the Pagan world, by raising thus His Standard, not a figurative one, but His own real Standard, His Cross, which, up to that time, had been a stumbling-block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles; but before which every Christian is, henceforth, to bend his knee.
Helen placed the Holy Cross in the Basilica that had been built by her orders, and which covered both the glorious Sepulchre and the hill of the Crucifixion. Another church was erected on the site, where the Cross had lain concealed for three hundred years, and the faithful are enabled, by long flights of steps, to go down into the deep grotto, which had been its tomb. Pilgrims came, from every part of the world, to visit the hallowed places, where our Redemption had been wrought, and to venerate the sacred Wood of the Cross. But God’s merciful providence willed not that the precious pledge of Jesus’ love for mankind should be confined to one only Sanctuary, however venerable it might be. Immediately after its discovery, Helen had a very large piece cut from the Cross; and this fragment she destined for Rome, the new Jerusalem. The precious gift was enshrined in the Basilica built by her son Constantine in the Sessorian garden, and which was afterwards called the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
By degrees, other places were honoured by the presence of the Wood of the Holy Cross. So far back as the 4th Century, we have St. Cyril of Jerusalem attesting that many of the Pilgrims used to obtain small pieces of it, and thus carried the precious Treasure into their respective countries; and St. Paulinus of Nola, who lived in the same century, assures us that these many gifts lessened not the size of the original Relic. In the 6th century, the holy Queen, St. Radegonde, obtained from the Emperor Justin 2nd a large piece from the fragment that was in the imperial treasury of Constantinople. It was for the reception of this piece of the True Cross into France, that Venantius Fortunatus composed the Vexilla Regis, that beautiful Hymn which the Church uses in her Liturgy, as often as she celebrates the praises of the Holy Cross.
After several times losing and regaining it, Jerusalem was, at length, for ever deprived of the precious Relic. Constantinople was a gainer by Jerusalem’s loss. From Constantinople, especially during the Crusades, many churches of the West procured large pieces. These again supplied other places; until, at length the Wood of the Cross was to be found in almost every town of any importance.
There is scarcely to be found a Catholic, who, some time or other in his life, has not had the happiness of seeing and venerating a portion of this sacred object. How many acts of love and gratitude have not been occasioned by this? And who could fail to recognize, in this successive profusion of our Jesus’s Cross, a plan of divine providence for exciting us to an appreciation of our Redemption, on which rest all our hopes of eternal happiness?
How dear, then, to us should not this day be, which blends together the recollection of the Holy Cross and the joys of the Resurrection of that Jesus, Who, by the Cross, has won the throne to which we shall soon see Him ascend|! Let us thank our Heavenly Father for his having restored to mankind a treasure so immensely precious as is the Cross. Until the day comes for its appearing, with Himself, in the clouds of heaven, Jesus has intrusted it to His Spouse, as a pledge of His second Coming. On that day, He, by His divine power, will collect together all the fragments; and the Tree of Life will, then, gladden the Elect with its dazzling beauty, and invite them to eternal rest beneath its refreshing shade.
The Liturgy gives us the following history of the great event we are celebrating today.
After the great victory fained over Maxentius by the Imperor Constantine, under the standard of our Lord’s Cross, which had been miraculously shown to him, Helen, his mother, was told in a dream to repair to Jerusalem and search for the true Cross. Upon her arrival, she ordered to be taken down a marble statue of Venus, which had been erected by the Pagans, some hundred and eighty years before, in order that all memory of our Lord’s Passion might be obliterated. She did the same for the place where there reposed the Saviour’s Crib, as also for the site of the Resurrection; removing from the former an idol of Adonis, and from the latter an idol of Jupiter.
The place, where the Cross was supposed to be, having been excavated, three crosses were discovered at a great depth below the surface; and with them, though not attached, the Title that had been fastened to our Lord’s Cross. The doubt as to which of the three Crosses the Title belonged was removed by a miracle. After having prayed to God, Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, applied each of the Crosses to a woman, who was afflicted with a dangerous malady. The first two produced no result; the third was then applied, and the woman was restored to perfect heath.
The Holy Cross being thus found, Helen built a magnificent Church in Jerusalem, in which she placed a portion of the Cross, enshrined in a silver case; the remaining part she took to her son Constantine, and it was put in the Church called Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which was built on the site of the Sessorian palace. She also took to her son the Nails, wherewith the most holy Body of Christ Jesus had been fastened to the Cross. Constantine passed a law, that from that time forward, a cross should never be used as an instrument of punishment; and thus, what hitherto had been an object of reproach and derision, became one of veneration and glory.
Both the Eastern and Western Churches abound in Liturgical compositions in honour of the Holy Cross. We offer our readers a selection from these, beginning with the glorious verses of Venantius Fortunatus.
He was pierced with the cruel Spear, that, by the Water and the Blood, which flowed from the wound, He might cleanse us from sin.
Here, on the Cross was fulfilled the prophecy foretold in David’s truthful words: “God hath reigned from the Tree.”
O fair and shining Tree! beautified by the scarlet of the King, and chosen as the noble trunk that was to touch such sacred limbs.
O blessed Tree! on whose arms hung the ransom of the world! It was the balance, wherein was placed the Body of Jesus, and thereby hell lost its prey.
Hail, O Cross! our only hope, that bringest us the Paschal joy. Increase to the good their grace, and cleanse sinners from their guilt.
May every spirit praise thee, O Holy Trinity, thou Fount of salvation! and by the Cross, whereby thou gavest us victory, give us, too, our recompense. Amen.
Christ Crucified is the power and wisdom of God (I. Cor. i. 24). Thus spoke thine Apostle, O Jesus! and we are witnesses of the truth of his words. The Synagogue thought to dishonour Thee by nailing Thee to a Cross, for it was written in the Law: Cursed is he, that hangeth on a tree (Deut. xxi. 23). But, lo! this gibbet, this Tree of infamy, is become the trophy of thy grandest glory! Far from dimming the splendour of Thy Resurrection, the Cross enhances the brilliancy of Thy magnificent triumph. Thou wast attached to the Wood, thou tookest on Thyself the curse that was due to us; Thou wast crucified between two thieves; Thou wast reputed as an impostor, and Thine enemies insulted Thee in Thine agony on this bed of suffering. Hadst Thou been but man, O Son of David! all this would have disgraced Thy name and memory; the Cross would have been the ruin of Thy past glory: but Thou art the Son of God, and it is the Cross that proves it. The whole world venerates Thy Cross. It was the Cross that brought the world into submission to Thee. The honours that are now paid it, more than make amends for the insults that were once offered it. Men are not wont to venerate a Cross; but if they do, it is the Cross on which their God died. Oh! blessed be He that hung upon the Tree! And do Thou, dearest Crucified Jesus! in return for the homage we pay to Thy Cross, fulfil the promise Thou madest us: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things unto Myself (St. John, xii. 32).
That thou mightest the more effectually draw us, Thou this day permittedst us to find the very Wood, whereon Thou stretchedst forth Thy divine arms to embrace us. Thou deignedst to give us this holy instrument of Thy victory, and which is to shine near thee in the heavens on the day of judgment; Thou mercifully confidedst it to our keeping, in order that we might thence derive a salutary fear of Divine Justice, which demanded Thy death on this Wood, so to atone for our sins. Thou also gavest us this most precious relic, that it might excite us to a devoted love for Thee, O Divine Victim! Who, that we might be blessed, didst take upon Thyself the maledictions due to our sins. The whole world is offering Thee, today, its fervent thanks for so inestimable a gift. Thy Cross, by being divided into countless fragments, is in all places, consecrating and protecting, by its presence, every country of the Christian world.
Oh! that we had St. Helen’s spirit, dear Jesus, and knew, as she did, the breadth, and length, and height, and, depth of the mystery of thy Cross (Eph. iii. 18). Her love of the mystery made her so earnest in her search for the Cross. And how sublime is the spectacle offered to us by this holy Empress! She adorns Thy glorious Sepulchre; she unburies Thy Cross from its grave; who was there, that ever proclaimed with such solemnity as this, the Paschal Mystery? The Sepulchre cries out to us: “He is risen: He is not here!” The Cross exclaims: “I held him captive but for a few passing hours: He is not here! He is resplendent in the glory of His Resurrection!” O Cross! O Sepulchre! how brief was the period of His humiliation, and how grand the kingdom He won by you! We will adore, in you where his feet stood (Ps. cxxxi. 7), making you the instruments of our Redemption, and thereby endearing you ever to our respectful love. Glory, then, be to thee, O Cross! dear object of this day’s festival! Continue to protect this world, where our Jesus has left thee. Be its shield against Satan. Keep up within us the twofold remembrance, which will support us in all our crosses, the remembrance of Sacrifice united with Triumph; for it is by thee, O Cross! that Christ conquers, and reigns, and commands. Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat.