The True Cross
FREE Catholic Classes
(AND REPRESENTATIONS OF IT AS OBJECTS OF DEVOTION).
I. GROWTH OF THE CHRISTIAN CULT
The Cross to which Christ had been nailed, and on which He had died, became for Christians, quite naturally and logically, the object of a special respect and worship. St. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 1:17 : "For Christ sent me not to baptize ; but to preach the gospel : not in wisdom of speech, lest the cross of Christ should be made void"; in Galatians 2:19 : "With Christ I am nailed to the cross"; in Ephesians 2:16 : Christ . . . . "might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross"; in Philippians 3:18 : "For many walk . . . enemies of the cross of Christ"; in Colossians 2:14 : "Blotting out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us. And he hath taken the same out of the way, fastening it to the cross"; and in Galatians 6:14 : "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world".
It seems clear, therefore, that for St. Paul the Cross of Christ was not only a precious remembrance of Christ's sufferings and death , but also a symbol closely associated with His sacrifice and the mystery of the Passion. It was, moreover, natural that it should be venerated and become an object of a cult with the Christians who had been saved by it. Of such a cult in the Primitive Church we have definite and sufficiently numerous evidences. Tertullian meets the objection that Christians adore the cross by answering with an argumentum ad hominem , not by a denial. Another apologist, Minucius Felix, replies to the same objection. Lastly we may recall the famous caricature of Alexamenos, for which see the article Ass . From all this it appears that the pagans, without further consideration of the matter, believed that the Christians adored the cross; and that the apologists either answered indirectly, or contented themselves with saying that they do not adore the cross, without denying that a certain form of veneration was paid to it.
It is also an accepted belief that in the decorations of the catacombs there have been found, if not the cross itself, at least more or less veiled allusions to the holy symbol. A detailed treatment of this and other historical evidence for the early prevalence of the cult will be found in ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS AND CRUCIFIX.
This cult became more extensive than ever after the discovery of the Holy Places and of the True Cross. Since the time when Jerusalem had been laid waste and ruined in the wars of the Romans, especially since Hadrian had founded upon the ruins his colony of Ælia Capitolina, the places consecrated by the Passion, Death, and Burial of Christ had been profaned and, it would seem, deserted. Under Constantine, after peace had been vouchsafed to the Church, Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, caused excavations to be made (about A.D. 327, it is believed ) in order to ascertain the location of these holy sites. That of Calvary was identified, as well as that of the Holy Sepulchre ; it was in the course of these excavations that the wood of the Cross was recovered. It was recognized as authentic, and for it was built a chapel or oratory, which is mentioned by Eusebius, also by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and Silvia (Etheria). From A.D. 347, that is to say, twenty years after these excavations, the same St. Cyril, in his discourses (or catecheses ) delivered in these very places (iv, 10; x, 14; xiii, 4) speaks of this sacred wood. An inscription of A.D. 359, found at Tixter, in the neighbourhood of Sétif in Mauretania, mentions in an enumeration of relics, a fragment of the True Cross (Roman Miscellanies, X, 441). For a full discussion of the legend of St. Helena, see ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS AND CRUCIFIX; see also ST. HELENA. Silvia's recital (Peregrinatio Etheriae), which is of indisputable authenticity, tells how the sacred wood was venerated in Jerusalem about A.D. 380. On Good Friday, at eight o'clock in the morning, the faithful and the monks assemble in the chapel of the Cross (built on a site hard by Calvary), and at this spot the ceremony of the adoration takes place. The bishop is seated on his chair; before him is a table covered with a cloth; the deacons are standing around him. The silver-gilt reliquary is brought and opened and the sacred wood of the Cross, with the Title, is placed on the table. The bishop stretches out his hand over the holy relic , and the deacons keep watch with him while the faithful and catechumens defile, one by one, before the table, bow, and kiss the Cross; they touch the Cross and the Title with forehead and eyes, but it is forbidden to touch them with the hands. This minute watchfulness was not unnecessary, for it has been told in fact how one day one of the faithful, making as though to kiss the Cross, was so unscrupulous as to bite off a piece of it, which he carried off as a relic. It is the duty of the deacons to prevent the repetition of such a crime. St. Cyril, who also tells of this ceremony, makes his account much more brief but adds the important detail, that relics of the True Cross have been distributed all over the world. He adds some information as to the silver reliquary which contained the True Cross. (See Cabrol, La Peregrinatio ad loca sancta, 105.) In several other passages of the same work Silvia (also called Egeria, Echeria, Eiheria, and Etheria) speaks to us of this chapel of the Cross (built between the basilicas of the Anastasis and the Martyrion) which plays so great a part in the paschal liturgy of Jerusalem.
A law of Theodosius and of Valentinian III (Cod. Justin., I, tit. vii) forbade under the gravest penalties any painting, carving, or engraving of the cross on pavements, so that this august sign of our salvation might not be trodden under foot. This law was revised by the Trullan Council, A.D. 691 (canon lxxii). Julian the Apostate, on the other hand, according to St. Cyril of Alexandria (Contra Julian., vi, in Opp., VI), made it a crime for Christians to adore the wood of the Cross, to trace its form upon their foreheads, and to engrave it over the entrances of their homes. St. John Chrysostom more than once in his writings makes allusion to the adoration of the cross; one citation will suffice: "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." These quotations from St. Chrysostom may be found in the authorities to be named at the end of this article. At the same time, pilgrimages to the holy places became more frequent, and especially for the purpose of following the example set by St. Helena in venerating the True Cross. Saint Jerome, describing the pilgrimage of St. Paula to the Holy Places, tells us that "prostrate before the Cross, she adored it as though she had seen the Saviour hanging upon it" (Ep. cviii). It is a remarkable fact that even the Iconoclasts, who fought with such zeal against images and representations in relief, made an exception in the case of the cross. Thus we find the image of the cross on the coins of the Iconoclastic emperors, Leo the Isaurian, Constantine Copronymus, Leo IV, Nicephorus, Michael II, and Theophilus (cf. Banduri, Numism. Imperat. Rom., II). Sometimes this cult involved abuses. Thus we are told of the Staurolaters, or those who adore the cross; the Chazingarii (from chazus , cross), a sect of Armenians who adore the cross. The Second Council of Nicæa (A.D. 787), held for the purpose of reforming abuses and putting an end to the disputes of Iconoclasm, fixed, once for all, the Catholic doctrine and discipline on this point. It defined that the veneration of the faithful was due to the form "of the precious and vivifying cross", as well as to images or representations of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, and of the saints. But the council points out that we must not render to these objects the cult of latria , "which, according to the teaching of the faith, belongs to the Divine nature alone . . . . The honour paid to the image passes to the prototype; and he who adores the image, adores the person whom it represents. Thus the doctrine of our holy fathers obtains in all its force: the tradition of the Holy Catholic Church which from one end of the earth to the other has received the gospel." This decree was renewed at the Eighth cumenical Council at Constantinople, in 869 (can. iii). The council clearly distinguishes between the "salutation" ( aspasmos ) and "veneration" ( proskynesis ) due to the cross, and the " true adoration " ( alethine latreia ), which should not be paid to it. Theodore the Studite, the great adversary of the Iconoclasts, also makes a very exact distinction between the adoratio relativa ( proskynesis schetike ) and adoration properly so called.
II. CATHOLIC DOCTRINE ON THE VENERATION OF THE CROSS
In passing to a detailed examination of the Catholic doctrine on this subject of the cult due to the Cross, it will be well to notice the theories of Brock, the Abbé Ansault, le Mortillet, and others who pretend to have discovered that cult among the pagans before the time of Christ For a demonstration of the purely Christian origin of the Christian devotion the reader is referred to ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS AND CRUCIFIX. See also the works of Harlay, Lafargue, and others cited at the end of this section. With reference, in particular, to the ansated cross of Egypt, Letronne, Raoul-Rochette, and Lajard discuss with much learning the symbolism of that simple hieroglyphic of life, in which the Christians of Egypt seem to have recognized an anticipatory revelation of the Christian Cross, and which they employed in their monuments. According to the text of the Second Council of Nicæa cited above, the cult of the Cross is based upon the same principles as that of relics and images in general, although, to be sure, the True Cross holds the highest place in dignity among all relics. The observation of Petavius (XV, xiii, 1) should be noted here: that this cult must be considered as not belonging to the substance of religion, but as being one of the adiaphora , or things not absolutely necessary to salvation. Indeed, while it is of faith that this cult is useful, lawful, even pious and worthy of praise and of encouragement, and while we are not permitted to speak against it as something pernicious, still it is one of those devotional practices which the church can encourage, or restrain, or stop, according to circumstances. This explains how the veneration of images was forbidden to the Jews by that text of Exodus (xx, 4 sqq.) which has been so grossly abused by Iconoclasts and Protestants : "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God," etc. It also explains the fact that in the first ages of Christianity, when converts from paganism were so numerous, and the impression of idol-worship was so fresh, the Church found it advisable not to permit the development of this cult of images; but later, when that danger had disappeared, when Christian traditions and Christian instinct had gained strength, the cult developed more freely. Again, it should be noted that the cult of images and relics is not that of latria , which is the adoration due to God alone, but is, as the Second Council of Nicæa teaches, a relative veneration paid to the image or relic and referring to that which it represents. Precisely this same doctrine is repeated in Sess. XXV of the Council of Trent : "Images are not to be worshiped because it is believed that some divinity or power resides in them and that they must be worshiped on that account, or because we ought to ask anything of them, or because we should put our trust in them, as was done by the gentiles of old who placed their hope in idols but because the honour which is shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent; so that through the images which we kiss, and before which we kneel, we may adore Christ, and venerate the saints, whose resemblances they bear." (See also IMAGES.)
This clear doctrine, which cuts short every objection, is also that taught by Bellarmine, by Bossuet, and by Petavius. It must be said, however, that this view was not always so clearly taught. Following Bl. Albertus Magnus and Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure St. Thomas, and a, section of the Schoolmen who appear to have overlooked the Second Council of Nicæa teach that the worship rendered to the Cross and the image of Christ is that of latria , but with a distinction: the same worship is due to the image and its exemplar but the exemplar is honoured for Himself (or for itself), with an absolute worship; the image because of its exemplar, with a relative worship. The object of the adoration is the same, primary in regard to the exemplar and secondary in regard to the image. To the image of Christ, then, we owe a worship of latria as well as to His Person. The image, in fact, is morally one with its prototype, and, thus considered, if a lesser degree of worship be rendered to the image, that worship must reach the exemplar lessened in degree. Against this theory an attack has recently been made in "The Tablet", the opinion attributed to the Thomists being sharply combated. Its adversaries have endeavoured to prove that the image of Christ should be venerated but with a lesser degree of honour than its exemplar.
The cult paid to it, they say, is simply analogous to the cult of latria , but in its nature different and inferior. No image of Christ, then, should be honoured with the worship of latria , and, moreover, the term "relative latria ", invented by the Thomists, ought to be banished from theological language as equivocal and dangerous.-- Of these opinions the former rests chiefly upon consideration of pure reason, the latter upon ecclesiastical tradition, notably upon the Second Council of Nicæa and its confirmation by the Fourth Council of Constantinople and upon the decree of the Council of Trent.
III. RELICS OF THE TRUE CROSS
The testimony of Silvia (Etheria) proves how highly these relics were prized, while St. Cyril of Jerusalem, her contemporary, testifies as explicitly that "the whole inhabited earth is full of relics of the wood of the Cross". In 1889 two French archæologists, Letaille and Audollent, discovered in the district of Sétif an inscription of the year 359 in which, among other relics, is mentioned the sacred wood of the Cross ( de ligno crucis et de terrâ promissionis ubi natus est Christus ). Another inscription, from Rasgunia (Cape Matifu), somewhat earlier in date than the preceding, mentions another relic of the Cross ("sancto ligno salvatoris adlato".-- See Duchesne in Acad. des inscr., Paris, 6 December, 1889; Morel, "Les missions catholiques", 25 March, 1890, p.156; Catech. iv in P. G., XXXIII, 469; cf. also ibid., 800; Procopius, "De Bello Persico", II, xi). St. John Chrysostom tells us that fragments of the True Cross are kept in golden reliquaries, which men reverently wear upon their persons.
The passage in the "Peregrinatio" which treats of this devotion has already been cited. St. Paulinus of Nola , some years later, sends to Sulpicius Severus a fragment of the True Cross with these words: "Receive a great gift in a little [compass]; and take, in [this] almost atomic segment of a short dart, an armament [against the perils] of the present and a pledge of everlasting safety" (Epist. xxxi, n.1. P. L., LXI, 325). About 455 Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, sends to Pope St. Leo a fragment of the precious wood (S. Leonis Epist. cxxxix, P. L., LIV, 1108). The "Liber Pontificalis", if we are to accept the authenticity of its statement, tells us that, in the pontificate of St. Sylvester, Constantine presented to the Sessorian basilica (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme) in Rome a portion of the True Cross (Duchesne Liber Pontificalis, I, 80; cf. 78, 178, 179, 195). Later, under St. Hilary (461-68) and under Symmachus (498-514) we are again told that fragments of the True Cross are enclosed in altars (op. cit., I, 242 sq. and 261 sq.). About the year 500 Avitus, Bishop of Vienne, asks for a portion of the Cross from the Patriarch of Jerusalem (P.L., LIX, 236, 239).
It is known that Radegunda, Queen of the Franks, having retired to Poitiers, obtained from the Emperor Justin II, in 569, a remarkable relic of the True Cross. A solemn feast was celebrated on this occasion, and the monastery founded by the queen at Poitiers received from that moment the name of Holy Cross. It was also upon this occasion that Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, and a celebrated poet of the period, composed the hymn "Vexilla Regis" which is still sung at feasts of the Cross in the Latin Rite. St. Gregory I sent, a little later, a portion of the Cross to Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards (Ep. xiv, 12), and another to Recared, the first Catholic King of Spain (Ep. ix, 122). In 690, under Sergius I, a casket was found containing a relic of the True Cross which had been sent to John III (560-74) by the Emperor Justin II (cf. Borgia, "De Cruce Vaticanâ", Rome, 1779, p. 63, and Duchesne, "Liber Pontificalis", I, 374, 378). We will not give in detail the history of other relics of the Cross (see the works of Gretser and the articles of Kraus and Bäumer quoted in the bibliography). The work of Rohault de Fleury, "Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion" (Paris, 1870), deserves more prolonged attention; its author has sought out with great care and learning all the relics of the True Cross, drawn up a catalogue of them, and, thanks to this labour, he has succeeded in showing that, in spite of what various Protestant or Rationalistic authors have pretended, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not only not "be comparable in bulk to a battleship", but would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four metres in height, with transverse branch of two metres (see above; under I), proportions not at all abnormal (op. cit., 97-179). Here is the calculation of this savant: Supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood, as is believed by the savants who have made a special study of the subject, and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find that the volume of this cross was 178,000,000 cubic millimetres. Now the total known volume of the True Cross, according to the finding of M. Rohault de Fleury, amounts to above 4,000 000 cubic millimetres, allowing the missing part to be as big as we will, the lost parts or the parts the existence of which has been overlooked, we still find ourselves far short of 178,000,000 cubic millimetres, which should make up the True Cross.
IV. PRINCIPAL FEASTS OF THE CROSS
The Feast of the Cross like so many other liturgical feasts, had its origin at Jerusalem, and is connected with the commemoration of the Finding of the Cross and the building, by Constantine, of churches upon the sites of the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary. In 335 the dedication of these churches was celebrated with great solemnity by the bishops who had assisted at the Council of Tyre, and a great number of other bishops. This dedication took place on the 13th and 14th of September. This feast of the dedication, which was known by the name of the Encnia, was most solemn; it was on an equal footing with those of the Epiphany and Easter. The description of it should be read in the "Peregrinatio", which is of great value upon this subject of liturgical origins. This solemnity attracted to Jerusalem a great number of monks, from Mesopotamia, from Syria, from Egypt, from the Thebaïd, and from other provinces, besides laity of both sexes. Not fewer than forty or fifty bishops would journey from their dioceses to be present at Jerusalem for the event. The feast was considered as of obligation, "and he thinks himself guilty of a grave sin who during this period does not attend the great solemnity ". It lasted eight days. In Jerusalem, then, this feast bore an entirely local character. It passed, like so many other feasts, to Constantinople and thence to Rome. There was also an endeavour to give it a local feeling, and the church of "The Holy Cross in Jerusalem " as intended, as its name indicates, to recall the memory of the church at Jerusalem bearing the same dedication.
The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross sprang into existence at Rome at the end of the seventh century. Allusion is made to it during the pontificate of Sergius I (687-701) but, as Dom Bäumer observes, the very terms of the text (Lib. Pontif., I, 374, 378) show that the feast already existed. It is, then, inexact, as has often been pointed out, to attribute the introduction of it to this pope. The Gallican churches, which, at the period here referred to, do not yet know of this feast of the 14th September, have another on the 3rd of May of the same signification. It seems to have been introduced there in the seventh century, for ancient Gallican documents, such as the Lectionary of Luxeuil, do not mention it; Gregory of Tours also seems to ignore it. According to Mgr. Duchesne, the date seems to have been borrowed from the legend of the Finding of the Holy Cross (Lib. Pontif., I, p. cviii). Later, when the Gallican and Roman Liturgies were combined, a distinct character was given to each feast, so as to avoid sacrificing either. The 3rd of May was called the feast of the Invention of the Cross, and it commemorated in a special manner Saint Helena's discovery of the sacred wood of the Cross; the 14th of September, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, commemorated above all the circumstances in which Heraclius recovered from the Persians the True Cross, which they had carried off. Nevertheless, it appears from the history of the two feasts, which we have just examined, that that of the 13th and 14th of September is the older, and that the commemoration of the Finding of the Cross was at first combined with it.
The Good Friday ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross also had its origin in Jerusalem, as we have seen, and is a faithful reproduction of the rites of Adoration of the Cross of the fourth century in Jerusalem which have been described above, in accordance with the description of the author of the "Peregrinatio". This worship paid to the Cross in Jerusalem on Good Friday soon became general. Gregory of Tours speaks of the Wednesday and Friday consecrated the Cross-probably the Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. (Cf. Greg., De Gloriâ Mart. I, v.) The most ancient adoration of the Cross in Church is described in the "Ordo Romanus" generally attributed to Saint Gregory. It is performed, according to this "Ordo", just as it is nowadays, after a series of responsory prayers. The cross is prepared before the altar ; priests, deacons, subdeacons, clerics of the inferior grades, and lastly the people, each one comes in his turn; they salute the cross, during the singing of the anthem, "Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi pependit. Venite, adoremus" (Behold the wood of the cross on which the salvation of the world did hang. Come, let us adore ) and then Ps. cxviii. (See Mabillon, Mus. Ital., Paris, 1689, II, 23.) The Latin Church has kept until today the same liturgical features in the ceremony of Good Friday, added to it is the song of the Improperia and the hymn of the Cross, "Pange, lingua, gloriosi lauream certaminis".
Besides the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday and the September feast, the Greeks have still another feast of the Adoration of the Cross on the 1st of August as well as on the third Sunday in Lent. It is probable that Gregory the Great was acquainted with this feast during his stay in Constantinople, and that the station of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, on Lætare Sunday (the fourth Sunday in Lent ), is a souvenir, or a timid effort at imitation, of the Byzantine solemnity.
- Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony
- Prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
- Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- The Apostles' Creed
- Hail, Holy Queen
- Litany of Saint Anthony
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.