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Helena: Finding the True Cross
According to legend, Helena Augustas, mother of Constantine, at the age of 80 travels to the Holy Land and finds the True Cross, the cross upon which Christ was crucified.
The visit takes place around 325, when Constantine initiates the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and informs the bishop to spare no expense. This martyrium encloses what is believed to be the site of the tomb of Christ as well as Golgotha.
Helena visits the Holy Land as a representative of the emperor and to view the places where Christ had lived and died. She becomes interested in locating the True Cross. There are several versions on how the cross is found. In some, Helena has a dreams telling her where the cross is buried. In another tradition, the Ethiopian Coptic tradition still celebrated as Mesquel, she follows smoke from a bonfire to the site.
However, the version that receives the most circulation and became popular in the middle ages, she asks the people of Jerusalem to tell her the location. When the Jewish leaders of the city are silent, she places one of them, a man named Judas, in a well until he agrees to show her the site. After seven days, he prays to God for guidance and reveals the location. Afterwards, Judas converts to Christianity, and takes the name Kyriakis, "he who belongs to the Lord."(1)
Helena finds the three crosses, nails, and title under a pagan temple. To determine which is the right cross, a dead girl is brought to the site. Upon being touched by the True Cross, she is restored to life.
Helena is made a saint for her role in finding the cross. She is also a model for a Christian empress due to her many acts of charity. Part of the trip was to promote good will for her son, especially after he apparently executed his wife and his favorite son, and to redress the wrongs inflicted on Christians by the other emperor, Licinius, who Constantine had recently defeated and killed.
A portion of the cross remained in Jerusalem, where it was exhibited on certain Holy Days. The remainder was divided between Rome and Constantinople. A portion of the title is sent to Rome, where it is hidden and then found again in the 16th century.
There are several legends surrounding the nails. In one, a nail is tossed into an angry sea to provide safe passage for the relics. In another, the nail becomes part of the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. A third has a nail becoming part of Constantine’s helmet and, to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy, formed into a bit for his horse.(2)
Within fifteen years, Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem, announces the wide spread distribution of the True Cross as a relic: "The holy wood of the cross gives witness: it is here to be seen in this very day, and through these who take [pieces] from it in faith, it has from here already filled almost the whole world." (3)
A practice, similar to pagan traditions involving amulets and bulla, developed among Christians to place this relic within crosses, rings, and other containers.(4)
The pilgrim Egeria in the late fourth century writes about viewing the True Cross in the basilica on Good Friday and that each celebrant touched their forehead and then kissed the piece of the cross while held by the bishop. Celebrants were watched closely. Egeria reports that one man had taken a bite out of the cross during this ceremony. The veneration of the cross on Good Friday in Jerusalem spread into Western practices. As the relic received greater distribution, the Veneration of the Cross feasts on September 14 emerged, which involved similar observances.
The first written records of the story of Helena finding the True Cross appear by the end of the fourth century. (5)< Constantine | True Cross >