Blind to the cross

When did Christians raise the cross? Not before the fourth century. Where did the lifting start? Appropriately enough in Jerusalem, where, after more than three centuries, the cross of Jesus was found. And when was that?

A pilgrim went all the way from Bordeaux to Jerusalem in 333 and described what he saw. Where Jesus was buried and rose and where he was crucified …

On the left hand is the little hill of Golgotha where the Lord was crucified. About a stone’s throw from thence is a vault wherein His body was laid, and rose again on the third day. There, at present, by the command of the Emperor Constantine, has been built a basilica, that is to say, a church (dominicum) of wondrous beauty, having at the side reservoirs from which water is raised, and a bath behind in which infants are washed (baptized).

He added that you could see the palm tree from the Christian scriptures, the column where Jesus was scourged and details like marks of nails, special stones and emperor’s statues but no cross.

In 348 or so, soon before he would become bishop of Jerusalem, a renowned local priest gave a lecture to Church initiates …

For if thou wouldest deny it, the place refutes thee visibly, this blessed Golgotha in which we are now assembled for the sake of Him who was here crucified; and the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross

So by now the cross had been found and pieces had made their way throughout the empire. And Jerusalem championed the form at every opportunity. The rise of the cross meant its rise, centuries after its destruction as the Jewish holy city.

As soon as our priest became the city’s bishop, he wrote to the emperor of the first fruit of his office, a strange phenomenon, described later …

At the time that Cyril administered the church of Jerusalem after Maximus, the sign of the cross appeared in the heavens. It shone brilliantly, not with divergent rays like a comet, but with the concentration of a great deal of light, apparently dense and yet transparent. Its length was about fifteen stadia from Calvary to the Mount of Olives, and its breadth was in proportion to its length. … The emperor was made acquainted with the occurrence, partly by numerous reports concerning it which were then current, and partly by a letter from Cyril the bishop.

And who found it? Later accounts said Constantine’s mother did. The first to say so is now lost. It was written late in the century by our bishop’s nephew. Fortunately a westerner translated (or paraphrased) the relevant section into latin in his church history.

A little later, in Milan, the bishop there tells the same story in his obituary for an emperor …

prophesy was fulfilled: On that day that which is on the bridle of the horse will be holy to the Lord Almighty. For this was what Helena of sainted memory, mother of Constantine, being filled with the spirit of God, uncovered.¬†How fortunate was Constantine to have a mother like this, who when her son was emperor sought for him the support of divine protection, that he might take his place in battles unharmed, and be without fear of danger! How great was the woman, seeing that she found something to bestow on the emperor, which was very much greater than anything she could receive from him! A mother anxious for a son to whom rule of the Roman world had fallen, she sped to Jerusalem, and thoroughly examined the scene of the Lord’s passion … So Helena came, she began to visit the holy places once more … she opens up the earth; she clears away the soil; she lays bare three forked giblets tangled together, which the rubbld had covered up and the Enemy had concealed … the inscription revealed the cross of salvation. … just as previously Christ had visited a woman in the person of Mary, so now the Spirit visited a woman in the person of Helena … She hunted for the nails with which the Lord was crucified, and found them.

And why Helena? Why Constantine’s mother? He founded the Christian empire. If the cross was so significant, there should be a connection to him. It was known that his mother visited Jerusalem in her last years. So …

Of course, she died before 330, more than three years before our pilgrim’s visit. Why was he so blind?

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