Having just experienced again the drama of Holy Week and Pascha – having walked the way of the Cross with our Lord, lamented his sufferings and venerated his Cross; having run to see the empty tomb and rejoice in his Resurrection – we now celebrate the recovery of this most sacred relic which is at the heart of all our Holy Week observances, the True Cross. The Church provides us with a feast day for giving thanks to God for St. Helena’s discovery of the Cross.
The events on which this feast day is founded are told in the Breviary:
The discovery of the relics of the true Cross, which resulted from the excavations in preparation for the several shrines built over the holy places of Mount Calvary, hath for many centuries been told in the following fashion. In 326, some fourteen years after the victory which the Emperor Constantine gained over Maxentius (on the eve of which the ensign of the Lord’s Cross had been so wondrously revealed to him), his mother Helena was warned in a dream to seek for the Cross at Jerusalem. Now the heathen had erected on Mount Calvary an image of Venus, the goddess of sensuality, to desecrate and destroy this holy place as a memorial of the sufferings of the Lord Christ. This statue, which had stood on Golgotha for nigh onto one hundred and eighty years, Helena took care to have cast down. The like work she did at Bethlehem, by cleansing from an image of Adonis the stable where the Savior was born; and again at Jerusalem, by taking away an idol of Jupiter from the place where Christ had arisen from the dead.
When Helena had thus cleansed the place where the Cross had stood (so the ancient story goeth on to say), she caused deep excavations to be made, which resulted in the discovery of three crosses; and somewhat apart from then the Title or superscription which had been nailed on that of the Lord. Which of the crosses had been his was unknown, but was made manifest in a wondrous fashion. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, after offering solemn prayers to God, touched with each of the three a woman who was afflicted with a grievous disease. The two first had no effect, but at the touch of the third she was straightway healed.
Helena, after she had found the life-giving Cross, built at Mount Calvary a church of extraordinary splendor, wherein she deposited part of the Cross, shut up in a silver case. Another part, which was given to Constantine, was laid up in the church which he built at Rome on the site of the Sessorian Palace, and named the church of the Holy-Cross-in-Jerusalem. It is also believed that Helena gave to her son Constantine the nails with which the most holy Body of Jesus Christ had been pierced. And then Constantine enacted a law that no cross should in any wise be used as an instrument of punishment. And thenceforth what had hitherto been a hissing and a curse among men, began to be esteemed worshipful and glorious. In particular, this feast is kept in honor of the many graces which Christians do constantly find in their devout remembrance of the Cross of our redemption.
We give homage to Christ and the Cross in the words of Dom Proper Guéranger:
Christ crucified is the power and wisdom of God. Thus spoke thine Apostle, O Jesus, and we are witnesses of the truth of his words. The Synagogue thought to dishonor thee by nailing thee to a Cross, for it was written in the Law, “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree.” But, lo! This gibbet, this Tree of infamy, is become the trophy of thy grandest glory! Far from dimming the splendor 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 imposter, 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 honors 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.”
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… 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. 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, 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.
Lo, the blest Cross is displayed, where the Lord in the flesh was suspended, and, by his Blood, from their wounds cleansed and redeemed his elect.
Where, for us men, through his love, became the victim of mercy, he, the blest Lamb, his sheep saved from the fangs of the wolf.
Where by his palms transpierced he redeemed the world from its ruin, and, by his own dear death, closed up the path of the grave.
Strong in thy fertile array, O Tree of sweetness and glory, bearing such newfound fruit ‘midst the green wreaths of thy boughs:
Twining about thine arms is the Vine, from whom in its fulness floweth the blood-red juice, Wine that gives life to the soul.
Crux benedicta nitet – Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-609), tr. John Mason Neale and G. H. Palmer
from the St. Ambrose Hymnal