St. Helena and The Legend of The True Cross

A panel of St. Helena with the True Cross, located in Washington DC, United States | 1495 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a legend unlike any other. It all started with a young servant girl named Flavia Julia Helena.1 Born in 248 C.E. in Bithynia, a province of the Roman Empire, Helena was no different from anyone else, until the day that she caught the eye of the Roman emperor Constantius I Chlorus with her beauty.2

They married, had a son in the year 272 who, if you have ever learned anything about Roman history, you will probably know. Their son was the one and only Constantine. Constantine became one of the greatest Roman emperors. One of the things he is known for is the Edict of Milan, issued in the year 313.3 The Edict of Milan allowed for Christianity to be a freely practiced religion. It was at this time that Helena most likely converted to Christianity.4

St. Helena with Judas and her servants discovering the Holy Sepulchre and the True Cross | 1460 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the year 324, Constantine sent Helena on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands in search of the “Holy Sepulcher” and “The True Cross.” The “Holy Sepulcher” is the location of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, while “The True Cross” is the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.5 On this pilgrimage, it was said that Helena “followed in the footsteps of Jesus,” by performing many acts of kindness and good works, such as giving money, food, and clothing to the poor, and also helping churches with funds as well as their other needs.6 After weeks of traveling, they finally made it to Jerusalem. With the help Judas Cyriancus, a man selected at random and forced against his will to help, Helena was able to get closer than she ever had to finding “The True Cross.”7 This is where the story diverges. Although some believe a commoner from a nearby town led Helena to “The True Cross,”others believe that it was Judas Cyriancus.

They continued their search for days, when their prayers were finally answered. Helena said it was then, “With sweet smelling dust and a flash of lighting pointed to the place where,” she instructed Judas to started digging.8 Finally, they uncovered three crosses, one thought to belong to Jesus Christ, and the others belonging to the two thieves that died alongside Him. To test and see which one of these crosses truly belonged to Jesus Christ, they searched for a leper at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Once one was found, they returned back to the site of Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. The leper was instructed to touch each of the crosses one by one. He touched the first one and nothing happened. He touched the second one and still nothing happened. Finally, when he touched the third and final cross, the leper was instantly healed.9 It was this cross that healed the leper, and for that reason it is known as the “The True Cross.”

Relic of the True Cross, located in St. Joseph Catholic Church (Detroit, MI) |  November 2013 │ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The cross was then carried back to Constantinople, while part of the cross was placed in the hands of the bishop of Jerusalem.10 As the years passed, fragments of “The True Cross” were placed in the care of many Catholic churches around the world for all to admire. Although we may never know whether the cross they found and distributed was “The True Cross,” like all legends, in the end it is up to us whether to believe the account or not.

  1. Dictionary of World Biography, 2016 s.v. “Helena, St.”
  2. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Saint Helena Makes a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” by Jennifer Stock.
  3. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Saint Helena Makes a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” by Jennifer Stock.
  4. Dictionary of World Biography, 2016 s.v. “Helena, St.”
  5. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003 s.v. “Helena, St,” by J. H. Geiger.
  6. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Saint Helena Makes a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” by Jennifer Stock.
  7. Barbara Baert, “New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,” Gesta 38, no. 2 (1999): 117-121.
  8. Barbara Baert, “New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,” Gesta 38, no. 2 (1999): 117-121.
  9. Barbara Baert, “New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,” Gesta 38, no. 2 (1999): 117-121.
  10. Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations, 2011, s.v. “Elevation of the True Cross (September 14),” by J. Gordon Melton.

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This Post Has 41 Comments

  1. Noah,

    Natural causes would not necessarily erode the crosses. My husband and I visited a viking museum in Norway two years ago that had ships that had been dated from a thousand years ago extremely well preserved. These ships were excavated only 120 years previously. It is possible that some early Christians could have taken it, but Christianity really didn’t become a movement until Constantine. Most Jewish people at the time and especially during Jesus’s crucifixion did not think he was anything special, so why would they bother to dig up his cross?

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