This commentary first appeared in the September 2011 issue of The Northern Cross, the diocesan newspaper of Duluth, Minnesota.
Father Richard Kunst:
If you have ever had the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem, you have probably visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a beautiful and ancient church that is built over the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Believe it or not, this same church is claimed to have been the tomb of Adam, who, according to tradition, was buried below where the crucifixion took place. This is why so many old crucifixes have a skull and crossbones below Jesus’ feet. According to the ancient tradition, some of Christ’s blood seeped into the ground and touched Adam’s skull, bringing the old Adam to life briefly with the blood of the new Adam.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is also associated with another historical event. On the lowest level of this ancient church is a chapel dedicated to St. Helena, mother of Constantine.
This unique chapel is clearly in what was an ancient stone mining area, and the claim is that it’s the site where the saint discovered the true cross on which Christ was crucified. Sept. 14 is the feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross, also known as The Triumph of the Cross. It is the anniversary of St. Helena’s finding the cross of Jesus in the area of this humble little chapel in the bowels of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The accounts of St. Helena’s finding of the cross do differ in some details, but the basic outline says that when her son the emperor made Christianity legal, she went to the Holy Land to look for relics associated with the life of Christ. Apparently the Jews had torn down the original site on the spot of the current church and buried it with a mound of dirt and rocks.
During the digging, three crosses were found with no markings that showed one of them to be the cross of Christ. So the bishop of Jerusalem, a man named Macarius, claimed to have heard from God that they were to bring the three crosses to the bedside of a woman who was at the point of death and touch the crosses to her body. The third cross cured her. By means of this miracle, the saint determined that the cross that cured the woman was indeed the true cross Jesus died on.
From there St. Helena took the true cross (along with other relics she found) back to Rome, where a church was built to house them. To this day you can go to Rome and visit the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and see the relics St. Helena collected.
Since that time, the church has often distributed small slivers of the cross that St. Helena found to monasteries, bishops, royalty and others for the devotion of the faithful. But over time it seemed as though so many of these relics were distributed that, as the 16th century humanist Erasmus said, “if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.”
That comment from Erasmus was the impetus for an investigation of the known relics by a 19th-century French scholar named Charles de Fluery. De Fluery was determined to discover exactly how much of the supposed true cross really was distributed. De Fluery’s findings were surprising for even the most ardent supporters of the relics.
He calculated the entire cross to weigh approximately 220 pounds and have a volume of 10,900 cubic inches. After exhaustive research and travel to all the known shrines that claimed relics of the cross, his findings were that the total volume that he had measured came to 240 cubic inches. Surprised himself by this finding, he estimated quite liberally that the smaller fragments in private hands were 10 times the known larger fragments, coming to the figure of 2,400 cubic inches, which was less than 20 percent the estimated size of the cross Jesus would have been crucified on. De Fluery came to the tested conclusion that the surviving fragments of the true cross could not possibly be large enough in volume to crucify a man on.
All this being said, there is still room for some valid skepticism. No doubt there are a lot of spurious relics out there that are a cause of skepticism. Like any relic, relics of the true cross need to have valid documentation before they can be venerated in a public setting. Perhaps we should take President Ronald Reagan’s advice to “trust but verify” when it comes to relics claiming to be from the true cross of Christ.
Still, these relics are meant to move us more towards faith than skepticism. So if you see one of these purported relics, it is better to pray than to doubt.