Butler’s Lives of the Saints – The Invention or Discovery of the Holy Cross

detail from 'Saint Helena' by Cima da Conegliano, c.1495Article

A.D. 326.

God having restored peace to his church, by exalting Constantine the Great to the imperial throne, that pious prince, who had triumphed over his enemies by the miraculous power of the cross, was very desirous of expressing his veneration for the holy places which had been honoured and sanctified by the presence and sufferings of our blessed Redeemer on earth. He accordingly came to a resolution to build a magnificent church in the city of Jerusalem, as the place which had been most honoured by the presence, the instructions and miracles, of the Son of God. Saint Helena, the emperor’s mother, out of a desire of visiting the holy places there, undertook a journey into Palestine in 326, though at that time nearly eighty years of age: and on her arrival at Jerusalem, was inspired with a great desire to find the identical cross on which Christ had suffered for our sins. But there was no mark or tradition, even amongst the Christians, where it lay. The heathens, out of an aversion to Christianity, had done what they could to conceal the place where our Saviour was buried. They had heaped upon it a great quantity of stones and rubbish, besides building a temple to Venus; that those who came thither to adore him, might seem to pay their worship to a marble idol representing this false deity. They had moreover erected a statue of Jupiter in the place where our Saviour rose from the dead, as we are informed by Saint Jerom; which figure continued there from the emperor Adrian’s time to Constantine’s; which precautions of the persecutors show the veneration which Christians paid from the beginning to the instruments of our redemption. Helena, being willing to spare no pains to compass her pious design, consulted all people at Jerusalem and near it, whom she thought likely to assist her in finding out the cross; and was credibly informed, that if she could find out the sepulchre, she would likewise find the instruments of the punishment; it being always the custom among the Jews to make a great hole near the place where the body of the criminal was buried, and to throw into it whatever belonged to his execution; looking upon all these things as detestable objects, and which for that reason ought to be removed out of sight. The pious empress, therefore, ordered the profane buildings to be pulled down, the statues to be broken in pieces, and the rubbish to be removed; and upon digging to a great depth, they discovered the holy sepulchre, and near it three crosses, also the nails which had pierced our Saviour’s body, and the title which had been fixed to his cross. By this discovery, they understood that one of the three crosses was that which they were in quest of, and that the other two belonged to the two malefactors between whom our Saviour had been crucified. But, whereas the title was found separate from the cross, a difficulty remained to distinguish which of the three was that on which our Divine Redeemer consummated his sacrifice for the salvation of the world. In this perplexity the holy bishop Macarius, knowing that one of the principal ladies of the city lay extremely ill, suggested to the empress to cause the three crosses to be carried to the sick person, not doubting but God would discover which was the cross they sought for.—This being done, Saint Macarius prayed that God would have regard to their faith, and after his prayer, applied the crosses singly to the patient, who was immediately and perfectly recovered by the touch of one of the three crosses, the other two having been tried without effect. Saint Helena, full of joy for having found the treasure which she had so earnestly sought and so highly esteemed, built a church on the spot, and lodged it there with great veneration, having provided an extraordinary rich case for it. She afterwards carried part of it to the emperor Constantine, then at Constantinople, who received it with great veneration: another part she sent or rather carried to Rome, to be placed in the church which she built there, called Of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where it remains to this day. The discovery of the cross must have happened about the month of May, or early in the spring. For Saint Helena went the same year to Constantinople, and from thence to Rome, where she died in the arms of her son, on the 18th of August, 326, as Pagi demonstrates, from Eusebius and Gothefridus. The title was sent by Saint Helena to the same church in Rome, and reposited on the top of an arch, where it was found in a case of lead, in 1492, as may be read at length in Bozius. The inscription in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin is in red letters, and the wood was whitened. Thus it was in 1492; but these colours are since faded. Also the words Jesus and Judæorum are eaten away. The board is nine, but must have been twelve inches long.

The main part of the cross Saint Helena inclosed in a silver shrine, and committed it to the care of Saint Macarius, that it might be delivered down to posterity as an object of veneration. It was accordingly kept with singular care and respect in the magnificent church which she and her son built at Jerusalem. See the lives of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Porphyrius of Gaza, etc. Saint Paulinus, in his epistle to Severus, relates that though chips were almost daily cut off from it and given to devout persons, yet the sacred wood suffered thereby no diminution. It is affirmed by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, twenty-five years after the discovery, that pieces of the cross were spread all over the earth: he compares this wonder to the miraculous feeding of five thousand men as recorded in the gospel. Read Gretzer on the Cross. The stately church which Constantine the Great built at Jerusalem, the rich ornaments of which are mentioned by Eusebius, was called the Basilic of the Holy Cross, because it possessed this precious treasure; the keeper of which was always a venerable priest. It was shown publicly to the people at Easter. The same was also called the church of the sepulchre, or of the resurrection; though this was properly only the title of the holy chapel in it, which stood over the sepulchre or cavern in which our Saviour was buried, which was in the garden adjoining to Mount Calvary: so that this great church covered the sepulchre, and was extended so far on Mount Calvary as also to include the rock Golgotha, and the very place where the cross of Christ stood at his crucifixion. This extensive building was enclosed within the walls of Jerusalem when that city was rebuilt. Constantine also built a church upon Mount Olivet, over the spot from which our Saviour ascended into heaven. This place was venerated by Christians from the very time of his death, as much as the fear of their enemies would permit. And this may account for the industry of the Pagans in filling up the sepulchre or cavern with stones, heaping rubbish over it to a considerable height, and setting up the most infamous of their idols over it, that the Christians might seem to worship a Venus when they came hither to pay their homage to Jesus Christ. We find the festival of the invention or the discovery of the cross solemnized in the Latin church ever since the fifth or sixth century. The finding of the cross by Saint Helena, happened in the year of our Lord 326, in the twenty-first year of Constantine’s reign, the thirteenth of the pontificate of Sylvester, and the first after the council of Nice. The feast of the exaltation of the Cross was kept in May, from the time that it was triumphantly placed by Saint Helena in the church at Jerusalem, upon its discovery in 326, which continued to the year 335, when the great church of the resurrection was built at Jerusalem by the orders of Constantine the Great, and dedicated on the 13th of September that year, as Saint Sophronius, Nicephorus, and the Typic of Saint Sabas mention. The cross was exalted or set up in that church the day following which was Sunday. Hence both the Greeks and Latins kept this feast on the 14th of September: and Saint Chrysostom’s death is related to have happened on this festival. After the recovery of the cross by Heraclius, this festival began to be kept in the Eastern church with greater solemnity and a fast. At Jerusalem the cross was shown to the people to be adored on Easter Monday, and also in the middle of Lent, as we learn from Saint Sophronius, Saint Paulinus, etc. In the Latin church, this was celebrated on the 3rd of May; whether this was the day of the discovery of the cross by Saint Helena, or of Constantine’s vision or victory, or of the dedication of the church of the Holy Cross in Rome, is uncertain.

The cross was chosen by our dear Redeemer to be the glorious instrument of his victory and triumph over the devil and sin; and by his death thereon he has purchased for us redemption, grace, and glory. The cross is his holy standard, under which all his followers fight his battles; and, according to the holy fathers, will be borne before him in a triumphant manner, when he shall come in glory to judge the world. The church professes a very high regard and veneration for this mysterious and salutary sign, giving it an honourable place in her churches, making frequent use of it in her holy offices, in the administration of the sacraments, and on many other occasions: in which particulars she imitates the earliest and purest ages of Christianity. It is the remark of Saint Jerom, “that if the ark was held in such high veneration among the Jews, how much more ought the Christians to respect the wood of the cross, whereon our Saviour offered himself a bleeding victim for our sins?” By devoutly respecting the sign of the cross, we profess our faith in Christ, who was crucified for us; we excite our hope in his merits, kindle his love in our breasts, renew the remembrance of his sacred death, and inflame our meditations on his adorable passion, in which we learn all virtue and all spiritual knowledge. What obedience are we here taught! seeing Christ himself “learned obedience from those things which he suffered.” What love of God and our neighbour! seeing Jesus has sprinkled his cross with his blood to seal his new alliance of charity, and to inculcate his own law and a new commandment. What patience do we here learn! What meekness and humility! the two things which Jesus commands us particularly to learn of him. And it is on the cross and in his sacred passion that he has principally set us the most moving example, and pressed upon us the most endearing precepts of these virtues. Whence assiduous meditation on the sufferings of Christ is the great school of Christian perfection. All the saints found in it their comfort and their joy; in it they continually feasted their souls with the most sweet fruits of love and devotion; in it they learned to die perfectly to themselves, and entered into the sentiments of Christ crucified: here they stirred up their souls to perfect compunction; and placing themselves in spirit under the cross of their divine Redeemer, they offered their tears and earnest supplications to the Father, through the Son, who made himself our sacrifice on this tree: “I have seated myself under the shade of him whom I desired, and his fruit was sweet to my palate.” Where did Saint Bernard learn his eminent spirit of devotion but in the meditation on Christ’s sufferings? Where did the glorious Saint Austin glean his spiritual science but, as he himself tells us, in the wounds of his Redeemer? It was in them that the admirable Saint Francis conceived his seraphic ardours. Saint Thomas Aquinas studied his sacred science and virtue in the book of the cross, and always had recourse to God at the foot of the crucifix. “Saint Bonaventure seems,” says Saint Francis of Sales, “when he writes the spiritual breathings of his heart, all inflamed with love; to have no other paper than the cross, no other pen than the lance, no other ink than what is dipped in the precious blood of Christ. With what feeling sentiments did he cry out: It is good always to abide in spirit before the cross! Let us make to ourselves three tabernacles in the wounds of our crucified Redeemer, one in his feet, another in his hands, a third in his sacred side. Here will I rest; here will I watch; here will I read; here will I converse.” Saint Paul, who was very learned, esteemed all his other science as nothing, and looked on the knowledge of Jesus Christ crucified as his only learning. “I judged not myself to know anything among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” By being instructed in this mystery, and having the sentiments of Christ crucified deeply impressed upon his heart, he knew all that he wished to know: it was his only solicitude and desire daily to improve himself in this one science. The same apostle, in the transport of his ardent love of the cross, cried out: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To glory in a thing is to love it, to esteem it, to place in it our greatness and happiness. “Every one glories in those things in which he places his greatness,” as Saint Thomas says.—The sacred passion of Christ is the source of all our happiness and good, and the perfect model and school of all virtue. If it be the tender object of our devotion, if we love and desire always to meditate on our Redeemer crucified for us, the sacred instrument of his triumph, the ensign and trophy of his precious victory, and the principal emblem of his sufferings which it represents to us, and strongly paints before our eyes, must be always dear and most amiable to us.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “The Invention or Discovery of the Holy Cross”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 4 May 2013. Web. 27 August 2014. <>