ON THE 14 SEPTEMBER, the Catholic liturgy celebrates the feast of the ‘Exaltation of the Holy Cross’ currently known as the ‘Triumph of the Cross’. It is an ancient feast with an extraordinary theological significance.
For the Christians of the First Millenium, the ‘Exaltation of the Holy Cross’ was a feast comparable to Easter. Especially in the Orient. But over the course of the Second Millenium, it lost some of its shine and almost past unobserved. Recently however, there has been an awakening of the values to which it refers, that is, the Christ of history. The widespread and increasing interest in the person, Jesus, is documented by books, studies, research and films. There is also renewed interest in the relics linked to Jesus like the Sacred Shroud, that is to say, the linen sheet in which the body of Christ was wrapped after His death, which is preserved in Turin, and pieces of wood, preserved in various churches and marked as pieces of the Holy Cross.
Since the Holy Shroud has already been examined in previous articles, this article will focus on the Holy Cross. Attention will be concentrated especially on the small sign mentioned in the Gospels, especially John, which was placed above the Cross and which had written upon it in three languages, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, by order of Pontius Pilate, the reason for his condemnation, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. This sign, also called the ‘Titulus Crucis’, has been preserved for years in the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, in Rome. It has recently made the news because two extraordinary books have been written about it. They scientifically examine the historical events and come to the conclusion that the sign is authentic and thus is a relic of enormous religious and historical value.
The love and veneration for the Cross forms the basis of the Christian faith. Since the beginning of Christianity, the Cross has represented the essence of the new religion. It recalls the Saviour who saved the world on the cross.
The Cross and the Shroud
Therefore, it is plausible to imagine that immediately following the Saviour’s death, the disciples of Christ, his relatives, the pious women and in particular his mother, Mary, tried to do all that was possible to acquire the wood which had been bathed in the blood of the one they loved so dearly. It is not illogical to think that in the end they succeeded in obtaining the Cross of Jesus.
They did the same thing with the Shroud and the other bandages that they found in the tomb, when the news of the Resurrection was confirmed. This cloth had been in contact with the body Christ and would have remained in Mary’s house as a remembrance.
As days went by, and the mystery of the Resurrection emerged in all its wonderful glory, with the various appearances of the Saviour, these objects transformed themselves from memories of pain and death into symbols of hope, exaltation and life. Their conservation for future generations became a new responsibility, in order to preserve the documentation of the greatest event to have happened in the history of the world.
Since the earliest days therefore, the Cross and other relics linked to the Passion of Christ, became the most precious items for the followers of Jesus. As a result, they became the most hated objects by the enemies of the Christians and thus their conservation, during the period of persecution, was not easy. The Shroud and bandages were easily carried from one place to another, but the Cross was bulky and so was probably broken into pieces and hidden.
The period of persecution for the early Christians lasted three centuries, until Constantine the Great (288-337), became emperor. The son of Costantius, Roman emperor in the West, Constantine was acclaimed as his father’s successor by his troops in York in 306, but he had to engage in battle with his brother-in-law Maxentius in order to gain power in Rome. In 312, there was a decisive battle at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. In the days preceding, Constantine had a dream. He saw the Christian Cross shining above the sun and next to it was written, In this sign, conquer. While he worshipped the sun, he decided to take heed of this vision and ordered that the sign of the Cross be placed on all the army’s flags. He went into battle, won and entered Rome triumphantly. The next year, 313, in Milan, he enacted a law allowing Christians complete freedom to worship. The document also mandated that all their land and property which had previously been confiscated, be returned to them, thus recognising the various Christian communities as legal entities.
From that moment on, the followers of Christ left their catacombs and began living their faith in the light of day. They began constructing churches, where they collected relics of the martyrs, their brothers and sisters who had been killed for their faith in Christ during the time of the persecution. They began to collect and give order to the historical patrimony of their faith: the writings, memories, oral traditions and above all the relics linked to Christ.
Emperor Constantine wanted to take part in this effort personally. He ordered the dismantling of the temple of Venus which had been constructed in Jerusalem over the Tomb of Christ by the Emperor Hadrian and in its place ordered the construction of a great Christian church called ‘Anastasis’ (Cave of the Sepulchre or Tomb). He also ordered the construction of a church at Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, called the Martyrion (place of the crucifixion). He gave his own mother, Queen Helena, a devout Christian, the job of overseeing the construction of the two churches and of looking for the Cross on which Jesus Christ died. Helena found some of the precious relics. She also found the small sign on which was written the reason for Jesus’ condemnation and some of the nails used for the Crucifixion. These were hidden at the bottom of a cistern, not far from the Tomb, still on the land which was the property of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who lent the tomb to the apostles so they could bury the body of their master.
Queen Helena divided the precious treasure into three parts: one part she left in Jerusalem, one she sent to her son in Constantinople, where he had relocated the capital of the empire, and the third she carried to Rome, placing it in a chapel in her own palace. She brought to Rome some fragments of the Cross, three nails used in the crucifixion, part of the ‘Titulus Crucis’ on which the condemnation is written in Latin and Greek; and she left the part of the ‘Titulus Crucis’ with the inscription in Hebrew in Jerusalem.
The church of the Holy Cross
The liturgical feast of the ‘Exaltation of the Holy Cross’ commenced following these events. In 325, the two churches constructed upon the orders of Constantine, were inaugurated in Jerusalem. On the 13 September the two churches were consecrated and the day after, on the 14 September the wooden remains of the Saviour’s Cross were displayed. It was a great and emotional feast that attracted many believers in Jerusalem and from then on, continued every year with ever increasing crowds of the faithful.
The feast became more popular in both the East and the West. In Rome it was celebrated with great solemnity in the Chapel of the Palace of Queen Helena where the relics of the Cross she had brought from Jerusalem were placed. That Palace was then transformed into a church called the ‘Church of Saint Helena’, but also ‘Jerusalem’ and then definitively ‘Holy Cross in Jerusalem’.
In Rome, the relics of the Cross of Jesus attracted increasing numbers of pilgrims. As early as the end of the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great began celebrating Good Friday in this church. Pope Lucius II, in the 12th century, ordered the reconstruction of parts of the church and that the relics be enclosed in a lead case and bricked in behind a memorial plaque entitled ‘Titulus Crucis’. The relics were rediscovered in a receptacle over the triumphal arch in 1492, following restoration work commissioned by Cardinal Mendoza. This finding caused great uproar.
But later, especially with the Protestant Reformation and the successive Counter-Reformation, a highly critical attitude developed in the bosom of the Catholic Church. Everything was doubted, even the trustworthiness of the historical sources of the Gospel and as a result, even the authenticity of the relics linked to Jesus. Theologians and historians began adopting a suspicious attitude regarding the precious relics which Saint Helena brought to Rome. The clergy was puzzled, they checked enthusiasm and little by little, the people lost interest and fervour. The events of the these precious relics were no longer portrayed as ‘historical facts’ but as tales of a bygone age.
A historical event
However, in recent times, the scenario has changed again. Scientific progress brought new research, examining old documents with sophisticated instruments and infallible tests. You can no longer doubt blindly. Studies of the Shroud which dramatically increased in the latter part of the twentieth century are responsible for this new direction in research and have caught the eye of the international scientific community. But interest has moved from the Shroud to other important relics as well, especially those linked to Jesus: the pieces of the Cross, the nails and the famous ‘Titulus Crucis’.
At the end of the 1990s, at the vigil of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, two extraordinary and very important books which researched the ‘Titulus Crucis’ were published. One, published in Germany, is called Titulus Crucis, the Discovery of the Inscription placed on the Cross of Jesus (not yet available in English) written by Michael Hesemann, a journalist specialised in historical research; the other, published in London, The Quest for the True Cross was written by Carsten Peter Thiede, a German expert in scrolls and the New Testament and the English writer Matthew D’Ancona, a journalist who comes from an academic background at Oxford. While pursuing different paths, these two serious, scientific books, even if not perfect or definitive, reveal with documents and incontestable proof, that this relic is authentic. Its story however, which we have examined in great detail, is therefore not merely part of a ‘pious tradition’ but is actually ‘a historical event’ which is very well-documented and which cannot be placed in any doubt.
We have conducted a brief but significant interview with Michael Heseman who has the merit of being one of the three brave scholars who has led the way in this new research:
Doctor Hesemann, your book ‘Titulus Crucis’ came out in Germany in 1999 and is being translated around the world: did you ever think it would be this successful?
I am a historian, but I work as a journalist. My job is therefore to write on themes of general interest. When I first found myself faced with the ‘Titulus Crucis’ I realised straight away that this topic was extremely important. I had enough paleontological knowledge (which forms part of my scientific and historical background) to ‘sense’ that this story could have a solid foundation. If I had revealed the authenticity of this precious relic, my work would certainly have merited being published in a scientific review or in a book.
What is your greatest merit concerning this work?
Having understood the importance of the‘Titulus Crucis’. Although, it is one of the most important relics in Christianity and the only written testimony dating from Jesus’ time to have been publicly exhibited for centuries, it was completely forgotten and ignored. For the first time in history we had the scientific methods to discover if it was a real or false relic, but nobody seemed concerned about it. I felt a great responsibility to find out the truth. In the end, I felt great joy in being able to say, as in the case of the Holy Shroud, that this relic of the Passion is more than likely authentic.
Did the ecclesiastical authorities assist you in your research?
At the beginning they were very diffident and reserved. There were also worried about the danger of a scandal. They did not know me, and therefore they did not know if I were trustworthy or if I were one of those irresponsible journalists chasing after a sensational story who had caused damage in the past. But once they understood what sort of person I was, they gave me all of their support. I had to promise however that I would not publish anything without their authorisation. Thus my project was to investigate the relic and write a report exclusively for the Holy Father. Only after the results of my research had been examined by the Vatican, did I begin to write the book.
In the first pages of your book, you write that your visit to the church of the ‘Holy Cross in Jerusalem’ changed your life: in what way?
Although I am a Catholic and have written about the stigmata and the apparitions of Fatima, this new research brought me directly to Our Lord, to His Passion, to His suffering for our Redemption and to His glorious Resurrection. To verify the high probability that this relic was authentic, I became deeply immersed in the world of Jesus of Nazareth, it placed me in the silence of Golgotha. I wanted to know what had really happened and to learn enough to have a clear picture, in order to see the historical figure of Christ.
What were the biggest difficulties you encountered while working on the book?
Not many difficulties from a research view point. It was a fascinating job which thrilled me. But I encountered personal problems, linked to my private life. While I was working on the book, while I was discovering the spiritual dimension of the Passion of Christ, my father died of cancer. I felt enormous grief which made me think about many different aspects of my life, about suffering, about death and about the hope of resurrection. But the theme of my book helped me understand the suffering of my father, and it gave strength to my conviction that death is not the end.
Will you continue your research on this theme?
Of course, I have continued it. My new book has already come out in Germany. It is called The Silent Witnesses of Golgotha. It deals with the most important relics of the Passion. I examine the facts of their traditions and where possible, present the facts of scientific research. I come to the conclusion that, in the majority of cases, nothing opposes the possibility of their authenticity. I am also working on other books with a Christian theme, and I am writing a novel, too.
The work of these researchers constitutes, in a certain sense, a revolution. It opens new prospects for other important findings concerning the patrimony of the Christian faith. The research will continue. It will intensify. The research already carried out makes it clear that the critical attitude of the Protestant Reformation and of the Counter-Reformation, which spread doubt concerning the historical value of the testimonies of the first Christians, was wrong and unjustified.