Today, thousands of pilgrims commemorate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. According to the Scriptures, when Jesus entered the city, He already knew the fate that would befall Him and told His disciples that He was to die on the Cross. Carrying his own cross, and flogged by Roman soldiers, Jesus made his way along the streets of the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem – the traditional way of the Cross. Thousands of pilgrims still follow the route of Jesus each year during Good Friday on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Agony. The last Stations of the Cross are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is said that here Jesus was crucified, and His Cross was found 300 hundred years later.
Rumors indicate that fragments of the Cross that touched the body of Jesus are still hidden inside vaults in the basements of the church. We are told that only a few priests are given access to the remains of this holiest of relics in the Holy Sepulchre Church.
.According to the legends, the story of the True Cross begins long before the Crucifixion. Some of the most important references to the early history of the True Cross can be found in the simple Church of San Francesco in Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy where the early renaissance painter Piero Della Francesca told the stories and beliefs about the True Cross in a group of frescos. Della Francesca was inspired by The Golden Legend, a tale that had been written by a Franciscan monk in the 13th century.
The first fresco of the cycle tells the story of Adam’s death. As Adam’s death was approaching, he begged his son Seth to bring him some relief from the Garden of Eden. The archangel Michael gave Seth a branch from the tree of knowledge. But Adam died before Seth got back, so Seth planted the branch at the head of Adam’s grave. A tree grew upon that spot, which eventually became the tree used in the crucifixion of Jesus. This link between Adam and Jesus through the Cross may sound like an odd coincidence, but it has theological significance. Through the tree that became the Cross of Christ, the man again finds paradise; at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, it is traditionally believed that the seed was planted for the tree from which the Cross of Jesus was made.
Popular interpretations suggest that the Cross was made of olive wood. But would an olive tree actually be strong enough to support the body of a man being crucified? Furthermore, if you look at olive trees, you’ll see that olive trees are very short. They are so short because they have to be pruned. If you don’t prune an olive tree, they grow up and up, which would be good for crucifixion, but not good for olives. The olive tree was one of the least suitable trees available. What’s interesting is that many people know the story about the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem where the wood for Jesus’ cross might have been taken from. The Monastery of the Valley of the Cross is a 6th-century Byzantine monastery, but the legend which ties that monastery to the Cross of Jesus comes a thousand years later, in the 16th century.
Archeologist Vasilios Tzaferis, who was once a priest at the monastery, found that although most of the stories have never been proven in fact, they provide the only known history of the Cross. “There is an opening, according to the legend or the tradition, and this is the place where the Tree of the Cross grew up. This is the story.”
The Greek Orthodox version of the Legend of the Cross is painted on the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross. According to Greek Orthodox tradition, the story of the Cross begins with Lot, Abraham’s brother. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot abandoned the city and sinned with his daughters. According to the legend, he then went to his brother Abraham to ask him how he could be purged of his sin. Abraham had been visited by three angels who announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They left three sticks in his tent. Abraham gave these sticks to Lot, and told him to plant them, and give them water from the River Jordan. If a tree would bloom from these sticks, God would forgive Lot’s sins.
According to the legend, Lot was supposed to bring water from Jordan, but the devil was always trying to prevent him to bring water because he knew what would happen to the tree, and the sticks; he was always appearing to him as a thirsty man and was drinking his water. But finally, when he succeeded in bringing some water and watering the sticks, they bloomed into a kind of tree with three sorts of trees: the cedar, the bross, and the pine.”
The Greek Orthodox tradition tells us that the tree was cut down in the days of King Solomon, and the intention was to use it as a beam in Solomon’s Temple. But the beam didn’t fit, and it was thrown away as a damned beam. In the time of Jesus, this damned beam was recovered, and out of it, the Cross of Jesus was made.
The Golden Legend also associates the wood of Jesus’ Cross with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. King Solomon cut down the tree from his grove to use in the building of the Temple. But the beam was eventually discarded and used as a footbridge over a small stream. When the Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem to pay her respects to the king, she discovered the bridge. When it was divinely revealed to her what the final use for this wood would be, she knelt in reverence. Solomon heard of Sheba’s reverence, and began to fear for the kingdom of the Jews, should the purpose of the wood be discovered. To protect his people, he had the footbridge removed, and the wood buried.
Hundreds of years later, the wood of the Cross floated up to the surface of the pool of Bethesda at the time of Jesus’ trial. This scene is depicted in a painting by the medieval painter Agnolo Gadi. In his painting, the carpenters are building the Cross from the wood which was found in the pool of Bethesda. It was here that Jesus healed the cripple, saying to him, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” Next to Bethesda is the Church of St. Anne, and not far is the site of Jesus’ arrest and trial.
The stone floor of the praetorium was originally part of a street from the time of Jesus. From here begins the Way of the Cross. Flogged by Roman soldiers, Jesus carried His Cross to the site of the crucifixion, believed to be in the Holy Sepulchre Church. He was crucified on a small hill called Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. The bare rock can still be seen inside the church in a chapel that commemorates the sight of the crucifixion. “And when they came to the place which is called the skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right, and one on the left.”
Because of the immense impact they had on the world, the last days of Jesus have always been an object of fascination. Special dramatizations of Jesus’ last days are performed every Easter. In Manila, every year a few Christians are chosen to emulate their Savior. This tradition of re-enacting the passion has spread to all corners of the world. Believers would still do anything to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Throughout the Roman empire, crucifixion was a common method of execution for criminals and traitors. Crucifixions took place every day. No records were left from Roman times of how crucifixion was actually implemented. For centuries, artists created their own interpretations of the crucifixion. Opinions varied as to how Jesus was attached to the Cross. The most popular representation of Jesus is with nails through the palms of his hands, and His feet crossed at the ankles. However, doctors say that the victim eventually dies from asphyxiation rather than pain by itself.
Since the 1940s, experimental research has been carried out to discover exactly how crucifixions were performed. Students were even hung on a cross in all kinds of ways to determine which were the most likely to have been used in Roman times. A momentous discovery in a burial tomb near Jerusalem led to the first archaeological evidence of crucifixion. The bones of a man who had been nailed to a cross were found.
In 1968, they discovered in Jerusalem the remains of a young Jewish man who was crucified around the time of Christ. And what was interesting about it is that until today it is the only direct evidence of crucifixion in the world. What we have here is an iron nail coming from the outside of the foot, after being driven through a piece of wood. You can still see the wood here after 2,000 years, and traces of the wood, which is olive wood.
After His crucifixion, the body of Jesus was taken down from the Cross and laid on the Stone of Unction and prepared for burial. “Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid.” – Luke 23:53. Although no one today knows where the original tomb of Jesus was, the shrine in the church commemorates the place where his body rested for three days. The events of the next few days became the foundation of a new religion. Jesus’ resurrection gave His followers the faith to spread His teachings around the world.
A controversial discovery in Jerusalem revealed four burial ossuaries from the time of Jesus, that were believed by some to be the tombs of the holy family. There is an inscription which might say ’Jesus, the son of Joseph.” Engraved on one of the ossuaries seems to be the name Jesus, son
of Joseph. On another, the name Maria is clearly engraved, and on the third, Joseph. The other one is Joseph, which is Yoseph — all of the names are in Hebrew. According to historians, these were common names in Jesus’ time, and their appearance together could be just a coincidence.
According to Jewish law, the bones found in the coffins were buried in a secret grave site. If indeed the bones of Jesus rested in this coffin, it would put the idea of His resurrection into question. However, if there were no empty tomb, one could still believe in the resurrection because, in all the creeds of Christendom, there is never a mention of an empty tomb.
In 326 AD, Helena the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine came to Jerusalem in an attempt to locate the authentic location of the crucifixion and asked the local Christian bishop where the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection were, the bishop took her to a built-over area where there had been a pagan temple to the goddess of Venus. It is widely accepted that the crucifixion took place on this site. It had only been three hundred years since the actual event took place when Queen Helena found the site and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet this location is disputed by most Protestants. They believe that the site of the resurrection was in the Garden Tomb, outside of the City walls. This fits the biblical description.
The rock nearby is believed to be the site of the Crucifixion, and surprisingly resembles the form of a skull. For Queen Helena, this empty space would have been more convenient to build the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This is an argument for the authenticity of the site of the Holy Sepulchre, namely that if they had wanted to lie, or they didn’t know, or if they didn’t have a strong local tradition of where it was, and they just chose convenience, that is, they found an open space nearby.
Legend, however, paints the history of the discovery of the Cross differently. Firstly, Helena is the one responsible for the search, and the finding of the Cross. The Golden Legend tells us that in her search for the True Cross, Empress Helena found a Jew named Judas who knew of its location. He refused to tell her, so she had him thrown in an empty well, and starved him.
As depicted by the artist Piero Della Francesca, Judas directed Helena and her entourage to a temple within the city walls dedicated to Venus. Helena ordered the temple demolished so that the digging could begin in search of the holy wood. Twenty fathoms down into the ground, three crosses were found.
When the True Cross was identified, it was divided into three pieces. One was sent back to Constantinople. Another was sent to Rome, and the third remained here in Jerusalem. To commemorate the finding of the True Cross, a feast day was d. Every year in early May, the relic was brought out to be venerated at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After mass, pilgrims were invited to kiss the wood. As ancient and similar to the veneration of the Cross, the most spectacular of the ceremonies celebrated at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the annual miracle of the Holy Fire. Thousands of ecstatic worshipers anxiously await the fire that descends from heaven, directly into the tomb of Jesus. After it is released, they rush forward to share in its light. Documents from the 4th century describe the celebration of the veneration of the Cross.
The discovery of the True Cross was the most important discovery in Christian history. So influential was this finding, that among the Eastern Orthodox, Byzantine Emperor Constantine, and his mother Helena, are now venerated along with the Cross.
The Christians of Jerusalem remained prosperous and at peace for almost three centuries. But the tables turned with the brutal attack by the Persians under king Chosroes. Their aim was to wipe out all traces of Christianity in the Holy City. Thousands of the faithful were slaughtered. Churches were pillaged and burned. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was especially hard-hit.
When the Persians came through, they stole the relic of the Holy Cross, the main relic that was here — a big chunk. And, the Christians felt this was a disaster.
Chosroes was prepared to destroy the True Cross, but his wife, herself a Christian, convinced him against it. Instead, he brought it back to his palace. Chosroes started a new religion, making himself a god. He put the Cross next to his throne, representing the son in the holy trinity, and since the dove represents the Holy Spirit, he replaced it with a rooster. The Christians of Byzantium could not tolerate the thought of the True Cross and Jerusalem being under the control of non-Christians. From Constantinople, the emperor at the time, Heraclius, set out in 620 AD to recapture territory from the Persians. In 627 AD, he and his men met Chosroes and his army in a fierce battle on the plains of Nineveh. Heraclius was victorious and Chosroes was beheaded.
In the Church of the Holy Cross, an icon depicts the return of the Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself brought the sacred relic back to Jerusalem. Legend tells that when he arrived, adorned as a king, suddenly the stones of the Golden Gate joined together like a wall.
According to the legend of the True Cross: ’The angel of the lord then appeared on the gate, saying, when the king of heaven went to his passion by this gate he was not arrayed like a king, but came humbly on an ass.’ In Agnolo Gadi’s painting of the legend, Heraclius arrives on his horse humbly carrying the Cross. Gadi painted only a partial cross in Heraclius’ hand because according to the story, three hundred years earlier Helena had cut the wood of the Cross into three pieces.
The artist Piero Della Francesca, however, wanted to show the Cross in all its magnificence and ignored this important element in the story by painting the Cross whole. Having the True Cross in Christian hands was imperative to the believer as a potential vehicle for the divine. From this time on, the Byzantines carried the holy wood with them into battle, as a symbol of their faith and devotion.
According to one: “The orthodox armies, whether in Byzantium, or in Greece, or in Russia, right through the First World War, when they would go into battle, the priests would carry an icon of the Holy Cross. This is preserved in the great music of Tchaikovsky’s Overture in which the Russian’s side is represented by a hammering motif – the antiphon of the Holy Cross. This is because the priests with the Russian army carried the icons of the Holy Cross into battle.”
Shortly after Heraclius’ triumphant return to Jerusalem with the True Cross, the swift horsemen of Arabia rode in. They wrested away the entire southern Mediterranean seaboard, including the shores of Palestine. Jerusalem was defeated, and once again, the balance of power was changed in the Holy City. Unlike previous conquerors, the Moslems took the reigns of power without shedding any blood. At first, religious sites and churches were left intact.
The situation became worse for pilgrims who came from the West in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, as they were barred from the holy places. The stories these pilgrims brought back with them to the Church began a religious ferment to free the Holy Land. In 1012, the mad Caliph al-Hakim ordered the destruction of all non-Moslem sanctuaries. Once again, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was leveled.
The True Cross, kept in the lower levels of the church, is said to have been spared in the destruction. The Christians of Europe were calling for a Crusade to redeem the site of the Holy Cross. The Crusades were essentially launched to recover the possibility of Western Christians coming on pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, and the place of the Crucifixion and the place of the relic of the Holy Cross. It was considered offensive and a scandal that this holiest of Christian sites should be “in Moslem hands.”
The call to crusade suddenly became a call for a collective act of penance, a panacea for the needs and woes of an entire generation. And the Cross was the symbol under which they fought, in the name of God. The Crusaders wore a cross in red on their cloaks, and when they went off on Crusade, they were blessed by the bishop with the sign of the Cross.
By the spring of 1097, four large armies had concentrated at Constantinople. After two years of battle in the region, they finally reached Jerusalem. On June 7, 1099, the Crusaders laid siege to Jerusalem. By the 15th of July, the Moslems could no longer hold out under the pressure. The Crusader Knights tasted their sweetest victory. The Holy Sepulchre and the True Cross of Jesus were back in Christian hands.
When the Crusaders came to Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox priests hid the Cross, they didn’t want to give it to the Latins. And then, only after torture, they revealed where they hid the cross, and since then, the True Cross became the major relic that they took to all the battles.”
The Crusades did not end with the capture of Jerusalem. The knights had a mission to Christianize the entire region. The relic of the True Cross became the battle standard of the Crusaders and was carried by the patriarch of Jerusalem in front of the troops to inspire the warriors in battle. They were rarely defeated for over a hundred years. When the Crusaders nearly lost one battle, it was attributed to the fact that they didn’t have the cross with them. Under Crusader rule, Jerusalem was Christianized, and the symbol of the cross heralded the top of the Golden Dome of the Rock.
By the end of the Twelfth Century, the new leader of the Moslem army was determined to shake the Crusaders’ hold on the Holy Land. Saladin was a gifted statesman, and in the eyes of the great masses of Islam, he represented the embodiment of Moslem virtues. To the Moslem leader, the war he was waging against the Christians was also holy. In 1187, Saladin took definitive steps to quash the Crusader knights. In the blazing heat of the Middle Eastern summer, the Crusaders met Saladin’s army just outside Tiberias.
They slowly moved towards Tiberias, but the Moslems forced them to withdraw to a crop of rocks called the “Horns of Hattin.” And then, there was the last battle because the knights could not do anything without their horses. And the heavy iron armor killed them in the heat of summer.
Rather than waiting in their protected enclaves for Saladin to back down, they set out towards the sea of Galilee to rescue the besieged city. Twenty thousand men set out on the second of July, in full armor, despite the excruciating heat. They would find no water until they reached the sea. The hot and thirsty Crusaders were no match for the Moslem warriors, who set fire to the brush around them. When the smoke thinned, the Crusaders threw down their weapons and laid themselves at the mercy of their captors. The Cross was lowered by Moslem hands. There’s a beautiful illuminated manuscript depicting Guy of Lusignan, the Crusader king facing Saladin, and Saladin is holding the True Cross and snatching it from the hands of Guy of Lusignan.”
The True Cross was in the hands of the Moslems. The Crusaders felt that the symbol of their victory was gone. Their presence in the Holy Land was in jeopardy. Within months, the Holy Land was conquered by the Moslems, and the Crusaders were pushed to the shores of Tyre in Lebanon. There they prepared for their next crusade to save the Holy Cross. Led by Richard the Lionhearted, the Crusaders laid siege to the city of Acco. The Moslems were almost defeated; negotiations for the Holy Cross began. It was then in the Acco region because we know that the negotiators of Richard the Lionhearted were permitted to venerate the True Cross when they went to negotiate with Saladin in August of 1191. And then, Richard made one of the greatest mistakes of his life by slaughtering over 2,000 Arab prisoners and the negotiations were broken off. The following November, Richard brought up the question again with Saladin, and again the negotiations are broken off. It took the Crusaders and their Moslem conquerors years of negotiation to settle their disputes over the Holy Land. Richard the Lionhearted asked Saladin for the return of the True Cross. “To you, it is nothing but a piece of wood but it is very precious in our eyes and if the Sultan will graciously give it into our hands, we will make peace.” Unfortunately, Saladin rejected the Crusaders’ request but during the fifth crusade, the Moslems agreed to give the True Cross back to its rightful owners.
In 1219, the fifth Crusade was besieging Damietta in the delta of Egypt, and Sultan al Kamil offers them the True Cross, Jerusalem, and central Palestine, if the Crusaders will leave Egypt. They refuse — they think they can win. Several months later, it’s clear no one is going to win. There are new negotiations, al Kamil again offers the True Cross, it’s accepted by the Crusaders, but then when the Moslems go to look for it, they can’t find it. And that’s the end of the story.
Opinions vary as to where the Sultan took the True Cross. Some say it was taken to Damascus, and placed under the steps of the largest mosque in the city. There the feet of every passerby would tread upon the True Cross, bringing renewed humiliation to the Christian faith.
The main part of the cross disappeared, but small portions of it still remained in the form of relics. By early medieval times, Christians began collecting relics with an intensity never known before. Merchants were making their fortunes selling phony bones and cloth from the garments of saints, and wood from the Cross of Jesus to believing Christians who hoped to benefit from their healing powers. Small portions of the wood of the True Cross, often set in reliquaries covered in gold and gems, were sold to those who could afford them. The oldest reliquary that we have from the Middle Ages dates to 1130; it’s in the form of a gold cross with two bars. It was 23 centimeters high, and it is gold wrapped around a wooden frame, and into that wooden frame were stuck slivers which were taken from the relic of the True Cross in Jerusalem.
Many Churches around the world claim to have pieces of the True Cross in their possession. This powerful relic has meant money and prestige. To Christians, no relic could be more powerful, or valuable, than a piece of the True Cross. The wood that remains today is the only relic that could actually have touched the body of Jesus. When real relics could not be found to venerate, every kind of fraud was perpetuated.
It’s been alleged that there are probably as many pieces of the Cross around as to build Noah’s Ark. Somebody decided to look at this, and they found out that if you look at all the Churches that claim that they have parts of the True Cross, there is only about enough wood for one cross.
Deep in the basement of the Holy Sepulchre Church, beneath the site of the crucifixion, some pieces of the True Cross are kept in a secret vault. This is the most valuable relic of the Greek Orthodox Church and is rarely presented in public. It is believed that the biggest piece of the Cross in existence today is kept there. Its origin, according to one priest, is from the part of the Cross brought back to Jerusalem by Emperor Heraclius after defeating the Persians. “Inside their personal crosses, the priests kept sawdust from the wood of the Cross, which is said to have healing power.”
For some, the value of the Cross of Jesus will always transcend its physical existence. Whether or not more relics of the Cross will be discovered is far less important than what the Cross represents to the faithful. Some say that to find the True Cross of Jesus, one need not look further than the heart of any Christian believer.