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Inventio Crucis, the Finding of the True Cross

May 1, 2020


“The Discovery of Three Crosses.”

“The Discovery of Three Crosses.” From the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

The Disappearance of the Cross. After Jesus died, the Cross was removed at some unspecified time and it was placed somewhere, but its whereabouts remained unknown. Great upheaval ensued. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and the city was left a smoldering pile of rubble. Under the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) Jerusalem was rebuilt and renamed Aelia Capitolina and a temple to the pagan goddess Venus was built over Calvary (c. 135). The reconfigured contour of the city hampered any effort to seek and find the True Cross, and the search went on for almost two more centuries.

The Pursuit of the Cross. Queen St. Helena (255-330), the mother of the Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity in 318, and in her fervor decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 320. She had a particular yearning to find the Cross. Upon her arrival, she asked the local Christian residents to point out the location of Calvary. Despite hardship and persecution, there had been a continuous Christian presence in Jerusalem, and information about the location of Calvary had passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next. She was informed to her chagrin that the Temple of Venus stood over Calvary. The pagan shrine was an outrage to Christians and, at the order of her son, the emperor, it was demolished.

An Amazing Discovery. The year most likely was 320, although various historical records also mention 322 and 326. As the workers excavated the site, or as they dug the foundations for the new Christian basilica, they broke into an old cistern slightly to the east of Calvary that had been used as a garbage dump. There in the midst of the debris were three wooden crosses. It is plausible that the Roman soldiers had discarded the crosses in such a handy location. Since Jesus was crucified between two criminals, and because three crosses were found, Helena and her workforce believed their discovery was no mere coincidence and regarded the crosses as authentic. The discovery is called the inventio crucis, the Invention or Discovery of the True Cross, a landmark historical moment for all Christianity commemorated each year on May 3. Next, Helena had to determine which of the crosses belonged to Jesus and was the True Cross, and there are several legends about how this was accomplished.

The First Legend. One cross reportedly still had the wooden placard attached, the titulus, inscribed with the formal charges that Pilate had ordered written, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19), and it subsequently was declared the True Cross.

The Second Legend. According to this account, Helena prayed to God for guidance for how to determine which cross was the Cross of Christ. A man recently had died, and with divine inspiration, she decided that his corpse should be touched by all three crosses. When the body came in contact with the crosses of the two criminals, nothing happened, but when the corpse came in contact with the third cross, the man miraculously came back to life. Thus, the third cross was declared the True Cross.

The Third and Most Popular Legend. According to this version, Helena decided to approach Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem to seek his advice. The bishop suggested that the queen find someone who was gravely ill to test the three crosses. Fortuitously, there was a woman who was near death, and all three crosses were brought to her bedside. When she was touched by the first two crosses her condition remained unchanged, but when she was touched by the third, she sat up, her strength was restored, she glorified God, and she proceeded to run about the house with even greater agility than before her illness. Thus, the last Cross was declared the True Cross.

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