September 14 is known as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and celebrates the glory of the cross of Christ by which we have been saved. It is also a day that commemorates the “Finding of the True Cross” by Saint Helena (Constantine’s mother) in the year 326, and ever since that day relics of the true cross have been distributed around the world.
Small relics of the cross can now be found in great cathedrals as well as the humblest of country churches, and at one time individuals also claimed to possess relics. The prevalence of these relics prompted John Calvin to quip, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.”
Modern-day skeptics hold fast to Calvin’s assessment and claim that since there are so many “relics” of the true cross, Saint Helena never did find the cross and all of these relics are simple forgeries; pieces of ordinary wood encased in a gold container.
Well, is it true? If we gathered all the relics of the true cross and put them together, would it build a wooden ship that rivals Noah’s ark?
Myth or fact?
First of all, we need to dig into what history tells us about the finding of the true cross.
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Tradition relates (confirmed by the contemporary sources of St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, Rufinus, and Gelasius to name a few) that Saint Helena was inspired by God to travel to the Holy Land in search of the true cross of Jesus Christ. After Jesus’ death, the Jews hid the cross in a ditch, covering it with stones so that the early Christians would not be able to venerate it. In the years that followed, a pagan shrine was also built upon the same site in honor of the goddess Venus, most likely constructed during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.
There were a handful of Jews who knew where the true cross was hidden and had passed down that information amongst themselves over the centuries. One such Jew, named Judas, felt compelled to tell Saint Helena where the relics of the true cross were buried.
They excavated the site and found three crosses; one was believed to be the true cross and the other two were from the thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. However, they didn’t know which cross Jesus was crucified on and decided to test them by bringing a terminally ill woman to the location and touching each cross to her. One of the crosses miraculously healed the woman, so that particular cross was enshrined in a church built in Jerusalem over the Holy Sepulchre and was believed to be the true cross on account of its supernatural properties.
Shortly after this event the true cross was broken into two primary pieces; one remained in Jerusalem and one was sent to Constantinople. Saint Helena also took a large portion back to Rome, which is now located in the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Additionally, the splintering of the true cross began and various churches and individuals requested relics, displayed in churches and cathedrals so that pilgrims did not have to travel to Jerusalem to venerate the relic.
Wanting to test the claim and see if it was true that all the relics of the true cross would build a massive ship, a French independent scholar named Charles Rohault de Fleury tracked down every surviving relic and published a scientific study in 1870 entitled Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion.
After calculating the weight of the cross that Jesus would have carried, he estimated that the volume of the cross would have been 10,900 cubic inches. De Fleury then compared that number with the total volume of all the true relics of the cross. He discovered that all the relics in the world amounted only to 240 cubic inches. Surprised by the number, de Fleury multiplied the number by 10 to cover any relics that were destroyed or in private hands.
Even after that, 2,400 cubic inches was not even close to the original volume of the cross.
Now over time there have been false relics of the cross that have been passed down, and that is why the history of a particular relic is important to know and to have proper documentation verifying its authenticity.
Many miracles and healings have been attributed to relics of the true cross over the centuries and attests to the enduring power of Christ’s cross.
As we pray during the Stations of the Cross, “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You. because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.”