St. Helena Finds the True Cross

Today is the feast day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, so happy feast day! Hooray!

Now, if you’re like me, when you hear “Exaltation of the Cross” you think immediately of the Passion of Christ and of His Sorrowful Crucifixion. After all, the cross and Jesus are so closely linked in our minds that one cannot help but think of the cross and not think of Jesus.

Yet, this feast day did not originate from the actual event of the Crucifixion, which is celebrated at other times of the year, but rather an extraordinary event which occurred centuries after the death of Christ, when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, found the true cross of Christ in a miraculous way.

Here is a massive fresco depicting the event! Notice how some men are actively pulling out the cross from the cistern!

Discovery of the True Cross, by Agnolo Gaddi, c. 1380s. Santa Croche, Florence, Italy. Via
Discovery of the True Cross, by Agnolo Gaddi, c. 1380s. Santa Croche, Florence, Italy.

As the story goes, St. Helena, an ardent Christian, went to Jerusalem to seek any artifacts of Christ that she could find. But let’s backtrack a bit…

At the time of St. Helena’s visit, Jerusalem was in ruins. In 70 A.D., the Jewish Temple had been destroyed due to a revolt. Several years later, the Emperor Hadrian, who reigned between 117-138 A.D. basically destroyed the rest. In place of the holy sites of the Jews and the Christians, he put up shrines to pagan gods. At the tomb of Jesus, he put a temple for Jupiter Capitolinus, who was considered to be the king of the gods and was in charge of thunder and the skies. As far as the place where Calvary was, he leveled the top of Mt. Calvary and put a temple dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love, beauty, desire, and sex.

Christianity remained illegal to practice until 313, in which Emperor Constantine legalized it with the Edict of Milan. Shortly after the Edict of Milan, St. Helena, his mother, converted to Christianity.

In 324, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, with the blessing of her son, and to find any artifacts from Christ that might be found amidst the ruins. She had the temples erected for the pagan gods demolished, and she and others began to search in earnest for any artifacts that they might find.

At Calvary, they found something quite interesting in a nearby rock cistern: three crosses and a wooden plaque that said, “Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum” or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

But, which one was the Holy Cross, the one that belonged to Jesus?

So, to find out, they took out a woman, dying from a terminal disease, and had her touch the crosses. On the third and last cross, by merely touching the wood, she was completely healed.

And all were amazed and glorified Christ.

Dear Jesus,

By Your Holy Cross, we have been saved. May we take on our own crosses and follow You always.


Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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