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According to Christian tradition, the True Cross is the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. According to medieval legend, the True Cross was built from the Tree of Jesse (father of King David), which became identified with the Tree of Knowledge that had grown in the Garden of Eden.
Finding the True Cross
Eusebius describes in his Life of Constantine  how the site of the Holy Sepulchre, originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem, had been covered with earth and a temple of Venus had been built on top. (Although Eusebius does not say as much, this would probably have been done as part of Hadrian's reconstruction of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina in 135, following the destruction of the Jewish Revolt of 70 and Bar Kokhba's revolt of 132-135.) Following his conversion to Christianity, Emperor Constantine ordered in about 325/326 that the site be uncovered and instructed Saint Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to build a church on the site. In this Life, Eusebius does not mention the finding of the True Cross.
Socrates Scholasticus (died c. 380), in his Ecclesiastical History, gives a full description of the discovery  that was repeated later by Sozomen and by Theodoret. In it he describes how Saint Helena, Constantine's aged mother, had the temple destroyed and the Sepulchre uncovered, whereupon three crosses and the titulus from Jesus's crucifixion were uncovered as well. In Socrates's version of the story, Macarius had the three crosses placed in turn on a deathly ill woman. This woman recovered at the touch of the third cross, which was taken as a sign that this was the cross of Christ. Socrates also reports that, having also found the nails with which Christ had been fastened to the cross, Helena sent these to Constantinople, where they were incorporated into the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse.
Sozomen (died c. 450), in his Ecclesiastical History , gives essentially the same version as Socrates. He also adds that it was said (by whom he does not say) that the location of the Sepulcre was "disclosed by a Hebrew who dwelt in the East, and who derived his information from some documents which had come to him by paternal inheritance" (although Sozomen himself disputes this account) and that a dead person was also revived by the touch of the Cross. Later popular versions of this story state that the Jew who assisted Helena was named Jude or Judas, but later converted to Christianity and took the name Kyriakos.
Theodoret (died c. 457) in his Ecclesiastical History Chapter xvii gives what had become the standard version of the finding of the True Cross:
- "When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, 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.
With the Cross were also found the Holy Nails, when Helena took with her back to Constantinople. According to Theodoret, "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."
Another popular ancient version from the Syriac tradition replaced Helena with a fictitious first-century empress named Protonike.
Some modern historians consider these versions to be apocryphal in varying degrees. It is certain, however, that the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was completed by 335 and that relics of the Cross were being venerated there by the 340s, as they are mentioned in the Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem (see below).
Conservation of the relics
Helena took a part of the true cross to Constantine; the rest she enclosed in a silver reliquary that was left at the Basilica in care of the bishop of Jerusalem, who exhibited it periodically to the faithful. In the 380s a nun named Egeria who was travelling on pilgrimage described the veneration of the True Cross at Jerusalem in a long letter, the Itinerario Egeriae that she sent back to her community of women:
- "Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, some one is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring..."
In 614 the Sassanian Khosrau II of Persia ("Chosroes") removed the Cross as a trophy, when he captured Jerusalem. Thirteen years later, in 628, the Emperor of the East Heraclius defeated Khosrau and retook the relic, which he at first placed in Constantinople and later, took back to Jerusalem. Around 1009, Christians in Jerusalem hid the cross and it remained hidden until it was rediscovered during the First Crusade, on August 5, 1099, by Arnulf Malecorne, the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, at a moment when it was sorely needed. The relic that Arnulf discovered was a small fragment of wood embedded in a golden cross, and it became the most sacred relic of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, with none of the controversy that had followed their discovery of the Holy Lance in Antioch. It was housed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under the protection of the Latin Patriarch, who marched with it ahead of the army before every battle. It was captured by Saladin during the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and subsequently disappeared.
Other fragments of the Cross were further broken up, and the pieces were widely distributed; in 348, in one of his Catecheses, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked that the "whole earth is full of the relics of the Cross of Christ,"  and in another, "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."  Egeria's account testifies how highly these relics of the crucifixion were prized. Saint John Chrysostom relates that fragments of the True Cross were kept in golden reliquaries, "which men reverently wear upon their persons." About 455 Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, sent to Pope Leo I a fragment of the "precious wood", according to the Letters of Saint Leo. A portion of the cross was taken to Rome in the seventh century by Pope Sergius I, who was of Byzantine origin.
Dispersal of relics of the True Cross
An inscription of 359, found at Tixter, in the neighbourhood of Sétif in Mauretania, was said to mention, in an enumeration of relics, a fragment of the True Cross, according to an entry in Roman Miscellanies, X, 441.
- "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."
- — Calvin, Traité Des Reliques.
Santo Toribio de Liébana in Spain presently holds the largest of these pieces and is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites. It is possible that many of the extant pieces of the True Cross are fakes, created by travelling merchants in the Middle Ages, during which period a thriving trade in manufactured relics existed.
In 1870, Rohault de Fleury in his "Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion" (Paris, 1870) made a study of the relics in reference to the criticisms of Calvin and Erasmus. He drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the True Cross showing that, in spite of what various authors have claimed, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four meters in height, with transverse branch of two meters wide, proportions not at all abnormal. He calculated: supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood (based on his microscopic analysis of the fragments) and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find the original volume of the cross to be .178 cubic meters. The total known volume of known relics of the True Cross, according to his catalogue, amounts to approximately .004 cubic meters, leaving a volume of .174 cubic meters lost, destroyed, or otherwise unaccounted for. It is unclear if any other scientific study of the extant relics has been conducted to confirm that they are from a single species of tree.
Veneration of the Cross
St John Chrysostom wrote homilies on the three crosses:
- "Kings removing their diadems take up the cross, the symbol of their Saviour's death; on the purple, the cross; in their prayers, the cross; on their armour, the cross; on the holy table, the cross; throughout the universe, the cross. The cross shines brighter than the sun."
The Roman Catholic Church, many Protestant denominations (most notably those with Anglican origins), and the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, the anniversary of the dedication of Constantine's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In later centuries, these celebrations also included commemoration of the rescue of the True Cross from the Persians in 628. In the Gallician usage, beginning about the seventh century, the Feast of the Cross was celebrated on May 3. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, when the Gallician and Roman practices were combined, the September date, for which the Vatican adopted the official name "Triumph of the Cross" in 1963, was used to commemorate the rescue from the Persians and the May date was kept as the "Invention of the True Cross" to commemorate the finding. (Note: the term "Invention" is from the Latin invenire, to find, and should not be understood in the modern sense of creating something new.) The September date is often referred to in the West as Holy Cross Day; the May date was dropped from the liturgical calendar by the Second Vatican Council in 1970. (See also Roodmas.) The Orthodox still commemorate both events on September 14, one of the twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year, and the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Cross on August 1st, the day on which the relics of the True Cross would be carried through the streets of Constantinople to bless the city [].
In addition to celebrations on fixed days, there are certain days of the variable cycle when the Cross in celebrated. The Roman Catholic Church has a formal Adoration of the Cross during the services for Good Friday, while the Orthodox celebrate an additional Veneration of the Cross on the third Sunday of Great Lent.
- Jan Willem Drijvers, "Helena Augusta": the three legends that circulated about the finding of the Cross, the Helena legend, the Protonike legend and the Judas Kyriakos legend, with references to the contemporary sources
- Catholic Encyclopedia: "True Cross," the official Catholic view
- OCA Synaxarion: Exaltation of the Cross, traditional Orthodox view
- Ron Loeffler, "The True Cross": a skeptical Protestant view.
- Fernand Cabrol, "The true Cross": a Catholic view
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