After Constantine’s conversion, for which his mother (and of course the Holy Spirit) was largely responsible, he determined to build a church in Jerusalem. Helena, his mother, was inspired to travel there and find the relics of our Lord’s torture.
There was no marker or even a tradition for the exact location, but aided by pious Christians in the area, the now 80-year-old Helena managed to find the holy sepulchre. Over it were erected fabulous statues of Jupiter and Venus, which she ordered removed and destroyed. She began digging, and found the Cross and nails that had been dumped into a pit (along with some refuse) next to our Lord’s tomb.
For centuries, the Church celebrated this discovery on the third day of May. Pope John XXIII abrogated it in 1960, feeling that it was an “unnecessary duplication” of the veneration accorded it on September 14. But veneration of the Cross itself and celebrating its discovery are two different things.
September 14’s Feast of Exaltation reads from the 12th chapter of John. But before 1960, on this day we read from the third chapter, which was chosen carefully for reasons that will soon be clear:
1 And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
2 This man came to Jesus by night, and said to him: Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God; for no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him.
3 Jesus answered, and said to him: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith to him: How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born again?
5 Jesus answered: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit.
7 Wonder not, that I said to thee, you must be born again.
8 The Spirit breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
9 Nicodemus answered, and said to him: How can these things be done?
10 Jesus answered, and said to him: Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Amen, amen I say to thee, that we speak what we know, and we testify what we have seen, and you receive not our testimony.
12 If I have spoken to you earthly things, and you believe not; how will you believe, if I shall speak to you heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting.
Saint Helena’s discovery of the True Cross in 326 came at a time when Christianity was at a low ebb: The Romans had instilled such fear and doubt in Christians that many wondered whether this Jesus person even existed. But He did, and she proved it, for among her findings was the title nailed to our Lord’s cross. Estimated to have measured twelve inches in width originally, two centuries of burial had reduced it to nine, as it remains to this day. St. Cyril observed that, despite the fact that hundreds of faithful had chipped pieces from it, its size hadn’t changed since its unearthing. He compared it to the miraculous feeding of five thousand.