The celebration of the finding of the True Cross at the Holy Sepulchre

The celebration of the finding of the True Cross at the Holy Sepulchre

This year, the feast-day of the Finding of the True Cross (Inventio Crucis) was postponed by one week to allow the Easter of the Orthodox Churches to take place. The friars of the Custody of the Holy Land celebrated it on 13 and 14 May in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

St Helena and the finding of the Cross

St Helena’s Chapel, the heart of the celebrations, is one of the lowest points in the Holy Sepulchre, behind the Calvary. In antiquity it was used as a quarry and it is still those rocky walls that are the walls of the chapel.

It was here, according to tradition, that the crosses of Jesus and of the two thieves crucified with him were thrown. They are believed to have been found in 326 by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, somewhere not far from the Calvary, says Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem, who speaks of this three times in his Catechism  (IV, 10; X, 19: XIII, 4). During the Vigil of the feast-day, celebrated in the night between 13 and 14 May, a passage from the History of the Church by St Rufinus was read, which describes how St Helena was able to recognize the True Cross of Jesus, because through it a woman who was seriously ill recovered.

The Vigil

The celebrations started in the afternoon of 13 May with the solemn entrance of the Custos of the Holy Land, fra Francesco Patton, in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. This was followed by the solemn procession, during which the Custos presided over the First Vespers in St Helena’s Chapel, before the relic of the True Cross. During the night, the friars celebrated the Vigil, singing psalms and canticles, as well as reading the Office. Due to the works underway in the Holy Sepulchre, the procession of the friars followed a different route, as the part of the corridor between Calvary and the Chapel was blocked. The access to Calvary also took place through a specially built temporary staircase.

The feast day

Holy Mass was held on the morning of 14 May. “We must praise the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which there is the salvation, life and our resurrection,” the friars sang during the procession towards St Helena’s Chapel for the celebration of the Eucharist. The Custos of the Holy Land, fra Francesco Patton, carried the relic of the True Cross in procession, and then it remained on the altar for the whole duration of the Mass. On this day, St Helena’s Chapel is decorated in red (the colour of blood) and gold (the colour of glory). The chasubles of the priests are also red and gold. On the stairs leading to the chapel, a small crowd of faithful took part in the celebration.

The Cross transforms us

This year - as the Custos reminded us in his   homily – the celebration of the finding of the True Cross is part of the eighth centenary of the stigmata of St Francis. “It is to this that following the poor Christ, expropriated and crucified, leads:  love transforms us into the living image of Christ,” fra Patton emphasized.

“In the context of war and violence, hatred, anger and desire for vendetta in which we are living, we must not be overwhelmed by the temptation to look the other way. Rather,” continued the Custos, “we must once again look up towards the Crucifix which radiates the light of the greatest love, capable of offering reconciliation at the cost of the gift of the self. Let us raise our eyes to Christ on the Crucifix, also in the name of those who cannot look up and those who do not want to look up; and let us ask that from his cross a river of mercy and reconciliation descends on to us.”

A unique celebration

Jerusalem is the only place in the world where this feast-day is celebrated, after the liturgical reform in 1969 cancelled the double feast-days and chose, between the two feast-days of the Holy Cross, that of the Exaltation, on 14 September. In Jerusalem, where the holy place where the Cross was found has a place of specific importance in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the feast-day was kept and the date of 7 May was chosen because it was linked to another prodigious sign described by St Cyril of Jerusalem:  on 7 May 351, “an enormous luminous cross appeared in the sky, above the Holy Golgotha, and extended as far as the Mount of Olives.”  This date allowed remaining in the Paschal period, uniting the mystery of the Cross with that of the Resurrection; it was close to the old date and allowed returning to the tradition dear to the Orient, of which the Churches have never stopped commemorating this apparition of the Cross in the sky of Jerusalem.

A triple blessing

At the end of the Mass, the relic of the True Cross was carried in a procession, going around the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the empty tomb of Christ, three times. The Custos then gave a triple blessing with the relic of the Cross, in front of the Edicule, in front of the altar of Mary Magdalene and in the Chapel of the Apparition (to the Virgin Mary).

At the end, the group of the masters of ceremony if the Custody sang the Magnificat before the Edicule in the Holy Sepulchre. Fra Rodrigo Machado Soares, master of ceremony of the Custody and in charge of the liturgical celebrations of the Custody, incensed the tomb of Christ.

Marinella Bandini