The lady and the cross

The mother of an emperor found Christ’s cross

Sept. 14 is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Before 1960, when the two were combined, there was another feast of the Holy Cross that was celebrated on May 3. It was called “the Invention of the Holy Cross.”

Not Thomas Edison

This seems an odd term — “invention” — as if someone like Thomas Edison had “invented” the Cross of Christ. However, the word in this context refers to the acts of the woman most connected with the origins of this feast: a former barmaid (sometimes called an innkeeper) named Helena.

This woman, born in the late third century, married a Roman officer named Constantius. He later became co-regent of the western Roman empire. Their son, Constantine, in turn, became the Roman emperor. In 313 A.D., Constantine made Christianity a recognized religion of the empire and set it on the path that later led to it becoming the official religion of Rome.

Sometime after the birth of her son, Helena became a Christian. She was about 70 (some sources say 80) when she, with the blessing of her son, made a pilgrimage to Palestine to visit the holy sites of Jesus’ life.

Whenever she is depicted in Christian art, Helena holds a cross. This is because she is also credited with locating the Cross of Christ in Jerusalem and establishing the foundation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there.

Helena’s quest for Christ’s cross is what led to the term: “Invention of the Cross.” The word “invention” should remind us of the classic “aha” moments of people like Edison. It comes from the Latin verb invenire, which means “to come upon” or “to find.”

This is what Helena did and it is said that she did so on May 3, 326 A.D. This is why a May 3 feast day was associated with the cross for many centuries.

A Jewish man, a bishop and a dying woman

How did Helena “find” the cross?

With the help of a Jew, a local bishop and a dying woman.

It had been said that, after Christ’s body was removed from the cross, Jewish officials had his cross thrown into a pit and covered over so that his followers would not find it. However, its location remained known to certain members of the Jewish community. One was a man called Judas — who later converted and became St. Judas Cyriacus. He helped Helena in her quest.

The pair was assisted by the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius. (He also became a saint.) Macarius entered the picture because he, on the orders of Constantine — perhaps at Helena’s suggestion — had had a Roman temple on the site of Calvary torn down. The temple had been erected around 70 A.D. by the emperor Hadrian. (There is some confusion as to whether the temple honored Jupiter, the principal god of Rome or the goddess Venus.)

The dying woman — whose name is unknown — entered the picture after the location around Calvary was excavated — at Judas’ direction — and three crosses were found there. The question arose as to which was Christ’s. In various sources, Macarius and Helena are both credited with the idea of using the cross to heal a dying woman. Each cross was touched by the woman, but only one instantly healed her. So this was named Christ’s cross.

Helena had a sanctuary erected over the site of Calvary, as well as a second, smaller structure, built over the nearby site of Christ’s tomb. She then had the wood of the cross divided in two. One part remained in Jerusalem and the other was sent to her son in Rome. (The relics of the True Cross were later moved to Constantine’s new capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey.)

Macarius was left to finish the two building projects at Calvary (which were later combined into one building, now known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). Constantine funded the work and the church was completed on Sept. 14, 335. This gave us the date still used for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Constantine’s section of the cross was again divided. Part went to the church now called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. Constantine had the other part placed inside a statue of himself. These parts of the cross were later divided into smaller pieces and spread across Europe.

The portion of the cross that remained in Jerusalem was later captured by the Persians under King Chosroes II, who invaded Syria and Palestine in 613-614. It was recovered in 629 by Heraclius, emperor of the Byzantine Empire.

Triumph of the cross

Heraclius had the relic returned to Jerusalem on Sept. 14. This is why the feast day of the Cross is sometimes called “The Triumph of the Cross.”

This section of the cross remained in Jerusalem, suffering various disappearances as struggles with Muslims increased and the Crusades began. Finally, however, in 1187, the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the army of the Sultan Saladin the Great and this part of the cross was lost to history.

Of the smaller pieces of the cross that remain known today, the largest seems to reside at the Holy Monastery of Xeropontamou, a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos. This fragment was said to have been given to the monastery by the Byzantine emperor, Lekapenos I, 920-944 A.D. The piece of wood — about one foot in length — never leaves the monastery. It is displayed only rarely, such as on the feast of the Holy Cross.

The Greek monastery, founded in the 10th century by Venerable Paul of Xeropontamou, has ties to an earlier monastery there. This one was supposedly founded by the empress Pulcheria of the Byzantine Empire — now known as St. Aelia Pulcheria. Her feast is on Sept. 10.

Thanks to three women, a bishop and an emperor, we have relics of the Cross of Christ, which are especially honored during this month.


Sources: Orthodox Church in America at; “Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories” at;;;;;;; “Catholic Encyclopedia”;; and