Stolen and Found: The Story of the True Cross

Stolen and Found: The Story of the True Cross

September 14th is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, also known as the Triumph of the Cross or the Elevation of the Cross.

This is the day the Church celebrates both the discovery and the recovery of the True Cross of Jesus Christ.

Do you know the fascinating historical account surrounding this ancient feast day?

Read on to learn more!

Discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem

The Finding of the True Cross by Agnolo Gaddi

The Roman Emperor Constantine (306 – 337 A.D.) was the son of a devout woman, St. Helena, who was a convert to Christianity. She went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to locate where the important events in the life of Jesus Christ occurred and to preserve the relics of the Christian faith that remained there.

One of her goals was to find the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and the very Cross on which He had hung.

By interviewing many locals, and with the assistance of St. Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, she discovered the spot and found the True Cross which had been previously hidden by the Jews. 

Three crosses were found—but they were uncertain as to which of them was the True Cross. So,

Following an inspiration from on high, Macarius caused the three crosses to be carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death.

“Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix”, Catholic Encyclopedia

According to the historian Rufinus, St. Macarius recited this prayer:

“O Lord, who by the Passion of Thine only Son on the cross, didst deign to restore salvation to mankind, and who even now hast inspired thy handmaid Helena to seek for the blessed wood to which the author of our salvation was nailed, show clearly which it was, among the three crosses, that was raised for Thy glory. Distinguish it from those which only served for a common execution. Let this woman who is now expiring return from death’s door as soon as she is touched by the wood of salvation.”

Then the miracle happened:

The touch of the other two [crosses] was of no avail; but on touching that upon which Christ had died the [dying] woman got suddenly well again.

“Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix”, Catholic Encyclopedia

The date of this discovery and miracle, according to tradition, was May 3rd, 326 A.D.

St. Helena had a church built on the original site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Her son Constantine dedicated this church on September 13-14 in the year 335 A.D.

Even today, the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem—the “Via Dolorosa”—end at this very spot.

The Feast Day

Procession in Piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini
Procession in Piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini

The True Cross was considered a most valuable treasure of the Church and became a highly venerated object.

The feast honoring the Elevation of the Holy Cross has continually been celebrated up to the present day. It is celebrated on May 3rd on the old Roman calendar (the date of its discovery) and on September 14th on the new Roman calendar (the date the church was dedicated).

The True Cross is Stolen

The Cross of Christ was kept by the Church in Jerusalem, but absconded by Chosroes II, King of the Persians, in the year 614 A.D. after the Persian invasion of Syria and Palestine.

In the year 629 A.D., the Cross was recovered and brought back to Jerusalem by Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople. The relic of the True Cross was then restored to its place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The date the True Cross was brought back to Jerusalem happened to be September 14th—the exact anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the date on which Jerusalem celebrated the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross.

Heraclius Carrying the Cross by Pierre Subleyras
Heraclius Carrying the Cross by Pierre Subleyras

Tradition has it that Emperor Heraclius carried the Cross on his back, a public act of homage, in order to restore it to its rightful place; although he was unable to move it until he had removed his royal clothing and put on the humble garments of penance instead.

Timeline of Events

326 A.D. St. Helena discovers the True Cross in Jerusalem on May 3rd.

335 A.D. Constantine dedicates the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on September 14th.

614 A.D. Jerusalem is invaded by the Persians who steal the True Cross.

629 A.D. The True Cross is recovered and brought back to Jerusalem on September 14th.

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