Most of the Sacramentals, though expressly mentioned, or, at least, foreshadowed in Holy Scripture, are, in their present form, of ecclesiastical origin; some few, however, were instituted by our Lord himself. His act of ineffable condescension in washing the Apostles’ feet had all the requisites of a Sacrament; it was a sensible ceremony, performed by a Divine Person, and it was accompanied by the remission of venial sin, and hence, necessarily, by an increase of sanctifying grace; he that is washed needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly (St. John xiii. 10.) Yet the Church, enlightened by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, as contained in Apostolic tradition, does not count it amongst her Sacraments. It is a Sacramental most instructive in its mystic meaning, most rich in blessings, most venerable in its divine origin.
Crosses and Crucifixes are Sacramentals of ecclesiastical institution, blessed by the prayers of the Church, moving the Christian soul, in virtue of Christ’s true Cross, which they represent, to many a pious thought and many a holy deed. But that true Cross is holier than they inasmuch as the reality surpasses the figure. Not with the blood of goats or oxen, nor the sprinkling of holy water, nor the unction of holy chrism; not by mortal priest or bishop or pope was it blessed, but with the Precious Blood shed for the world’s redemption, by the Great High Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The old Romans looked on crucifixion as the most cruel and ignominious of punishments, fit only for slaves or the perpetrators of the most atrocious crimes. “Slaves, robbers, assassins and rebels,” says Lamy, in his dissertation on the Cross, “were condemned to be crucified, and they hung on the instrument of their punishment until hunger, thirst or the cruel pains they endured killed them; and then their dead bodies were given as food to dogs and crows.” The celebrated passage in Cicero’s oration against Verres shows us plainly in what horror crucifixion was held: “To bind a Roman citizen is unlawful, to scourge him is an atrocious crime, to slay him is a parricide, but to crucify him! . . . what shall I callit?” Yet did the innocent Jesus vouchsafe to die this ignominious death for us sinners!
The two charges brought by the Jews against our Lord were blasphemy and treason. The Jews answered: We have a law, and according to the law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God, (St. John, xix. 7.) We have found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, and saying that He is Christ the King (St. Luke, xxiii. 2.) According to the law of Moses stoning was the punishment of blasphemy and hence it was rather on the false charge of treason that Pilate, in his capacity of Roman Governor, condemned our Saviour to the Cross.
Crosses are of several kinds: the Latin, the
Greek, the transverse, the Egyptian and the Maltese.
The Latin Cross, the one in use amongst
us, consists of two beams cutting each other at
right angles at about three quarters the length
of the longer piece, as in figure (1.)
The material of the Sacred Cross was probably oak, as this wood abounded in Judea, and would be moreover, from its strength, one of the most suitable of trees for bearing up the body of the crucified. There is, I believe, a touching and beautiful legend that seeds from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were borne by the waters of the flood, or other cause, to the mountain of Cavalry, and that from the offshoots thereof the Holy Cross was made. And if this be so, then would our Lord have nailed to the very tree which caused man’s sin the cancelled record of that sin, washing out the handwriting that was against us with His own most Precious Blood.
The Cross was very high. The testimony of Holy Scripture in regard to the punishment of Aman, mentioned in the Book of Esther, and that of profane authors, quoted by Baronius, inform us that high crosses were reserved for criminals of noble birth. Surely He who was thought to be the son of Joseph the carpenter was not deemed of noble extraction by Jew or Roman, though in truth the blood of Juda’s royal line flowed through His veins, though heaven and earth and hell owned Him their Lord and King. Moreover, we know from the Evangelist St. John that the title placed by Pilate on the Cross was read by the Jews, which could scarcely have been done, had the Cross been very high. The letters of the title were not unusually large, as is proved by a fragment preserved in one of the churches of Rome.
After our Lord’s Body had been taken down from the Cross, the Jews buried the once disgraceful but now glorious instrument of death, together with the crosses of the two thieves and other relics of the Passion. They and the heathens were anxious to obliterate all traces of the spot whereon the world’s redemption had been consummated, and accordingly they filled the Holy Sepulchre with earth and erected over it a temple and a statue to the impure goddess Venus. For nearly three hundred years the abomination stood in the holy place. But when Constantine the Great became master of the Roman Empire, the death-knell of Paganism sounded and the moment of the Cross’s triumph was approaching. The glorious cross, with the consoling inscription, in this thou shalt conquer, which appeared to him in 311, when he was marching against the tyrant Maxentius, had implanted in the Emperor’s breast a profound veneration for the sacred instrument of man’s redemption. When his mother, St. Helena, went to Palestine, about the year 326, with the design of rescuing the Holy Places from the neglect into which they had fallen, he seconded her to the full extent of his imperial power. She began her pious work by destroying the temple and the statue of Venus and excavating the ground on which they had stood. The Holy Sepulchre was thus laid open, and near it were found three crosses and other implements of the Passion. Which cross was our Lord’s was now the question. The Empress consulted St. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, and he, by divine inspiration, directed the three to be applied to the body of a noble matron who was lying dangerously sick. Two of the crosses produced no effect; at the touch of the third she that was sick arose cured, thus attesting the power of the true Cross, which, because of Him who died on it, gave life to those for whom He died.
A gorgeous temple, in honor of our Saviour was built over the sacred spot where the Cross, stood and in it a large portion of the revered relic was left by the good Empress. Another piece was sent to the Church of the Holy Cross in Rome, and a third to Constantinople.
Near three hundred years again went by, and then the glories of Christ’s true Cross were once more eclipsed, but only to beam forth with greater brightness. The Persian King Chosroes overran the Eastern provinces of the Greek empire and took Jerusalem in 624. His sacrilegious hands seized the true Cross and made captive the Patriarch Zachary. The relic and the Bishop were the two most valuable trophies that graced the triumphant return of the barbarian monarch to his own capital. Yet strange to say, Chosroes and his people held the sacred wood in profound veneration ; they never took it from the silver case in which St. Helena had enshrined it. But the King had committed sacrilege in carrying off the Cross, and the avenging arm of God smote him for his crime, even in this life. Heraclius, one of the ablest monarchs that ever sat on the throne of Constantinople, was now the Emperor of the East. His army was small, but he trusted in God, and a glorious victory over the Persians arms, in 627, was the reward of his confidence. Chosroes was lying dangerously ill at the time of his defeat, and fearing an approaching death or captivity, he made be younger son his colleague in the government of Persia. The flames of jealousy and vengeance were lighted up in the bosom of Siroes, the elder son. He seized on his aged father and bound him in chains, and then ordered the young king to be slaughtered before the eyes of his heart-broken parent. Death soon freed Chosroes from the cruel treatment of his guilty son. Siroes hastened to make peace with Heraclius, which he obtained on condition of restoring the Holy Cross and Patriarch Zachary and his fellow-Christian captives.
Great was the joy of the Catholic world on the recovery of the precious relic. Heraclius caused medals, commemorating the event, to be struck at Constantinople, and then proceeded to Palestine to attend to the restoration of the Holy Places. On his arrival at Jerusalem, he determined to bear the Cross on his own shoulder to the Church on Calvary. Clad in his imperial robes, all glittering with gold and jewels, he set out on his pious pilgrimage But an invisible hand stopped him; in vain did he endeavor to reach Calvary; his feet refused to perform their office. “Seest thou not, O Emperor,” said the Patriarch Zachary, “that thy gaudy apparel little beseemeth the poverty and humility of Jesus Christ? In poor apparel and with bare feet He carried this Cross; do thou the same.” The Emperor obeyed; he clothed himself in plebeian dress and cast off his shoes, and then easily finished his route and deposited the Cross in the place from which the Persians had taken it.
Centuries went by, and the Holy Cross remained undisturbed in Jerusalem, dearly prized by the Christians of Palestine as their most precious relic, a loadstone which drew, with sweet attraction, the veneration and love of Catholic hearts in the most distant regions of the West. Then another storm came, The fiery zealots of the Koran poured out in impetuous torrents from the deserts of Arabia, sweeping away, in their disastrous course, civilization and religion. To make sure of saving from profanation and destruction a part at least of that piece of the Cross which they possessed, the Christians of Jerusalem divided it into smaller portions and sent them to different churches, reserving some however for themselves. David, one of the kings of the Georgians, and who lived about the time of the first Crusade, got one of these holy relics. In 1109, ten years after the capture of Jerusalem by the Latin arms, Anseau, a canon of the church of Paris, obtained possession of this portion of the Holy Cross from the widow of the Georgian king. Anseau sent it to Galen, Bishop of Paris, to be presented by him to the chapter of the Cathedral. The Cross was faithfully preserved among the treasures of Notre Dame until the French revolution, when it fell into the hands of a commissary of the Sections. He restored it, with the exception of a small piece that he reserved for himself, and thus our Lord’s Cross came back to its old home, our Lady’s Church. Jesus and Mary are inseparable; the Mother was with the Son at Bethlehem and on Calvary and is now in Heaven with Him.
Paris has other portions of the Sacred Cross; some were sent to St. Louis by Baldwin II., Emperor of Constantinople, and one was donated by the Princess Anne of Cleves to the Abbey of St. Germain-des-Pres. [The Church commemorates the finding of the Holy Cross, on the 3d of May, and its recovery from the Persians, on the 14th of September.]
We have already said that the church of the Holy Cross of Jersusalem in the city of Rome is blessed with a large piece of the cross, the gift of St. Helena. Relics of the same sacred wood, of minutely small dimensions, have been distributed throughout the Catholic world, and if any of us should have the happiness of possessing one let us value it as a dear memorial of our Lord’s Passion and Death.