A Message from Father Nick 21
Constantine’s Mother (2) Bringing the Mystery back home
Last week, we honoured St Helena as our pioneer of pilgrimage, remembering her journey to the places most intimately associated with Jesus. But we honour her for more than simply going to those places. Helena is also credited with finding the instruments of Our Lord’s Passion and bringing them back to Rome. In that sense we can also regard her as a pioneer of venerating relics.
According to some early Christian historians, Helena’s visit to the Holy Land was in 326-328 AD. The site of the Holy Sepulchre had long been covered by a temple dedicated to Venus, probably commissioned by Hadrian in his rebuilding of Jerusalem as a pagan city. Accounts tell us that, under Helena’s supervision, three crosses were found beneath the temple, one of which worked a miracle of healing. (Socrates Scholasticus mentions also the finding of the “titulus”, the name attached to Jesus’ cross, and the nails with which he was crucified.)
When Helena returned to Rome, she brought relics of the Passion with her – including soil which acted as ballast in her ship and which she later used to pack the floor of a new church constructed from rooms in her own palace. This became known as the basilica of “Santa Croce in Gerusalemme”, or “Holy Cross in Jerusalem”, and can still be visited today.
The relics, of course, are its outstanding feature, though they can never be finally authenticated. They include two thorns from the crown of thorns, part of the “Good Thief’s” cross, a nail, and – not for those as sceptical as the apostle himself – the skeletal finger of St Thomas. But most interesting is the so-called “titulus” or title that was set above Jesus’ head on Calvary. Stanley Luff, author of The Christian’s Guide to Rome, describes its discovery when the basilica was repaired in 1492. Although fourth century accounts mention such a relic in Jerusalem, it seems to have been brought to Rome and at some point bricked up behind the inscription “TITULUS CRUCIS”, only to be curiously forgotten. Stanley Luff points out:
“An intriguing feature is that the words still legible on this fragment – Jesus of Nazareth, King, in Greek and Latin – are cut in the wood so as to read from right to left, This is correct for Hebrew – of which the barest trace remains – but very unexpected for these two languages. Both possible explanations appear to support the authenticity of the relic. One can well picture a Jew, acting under Roman orders and using the letters of a language he did not really know, setting them down one by one the way he wrote his own language. On the other hand, it is not unheard of for an occasional Greek or Latin inscription, on a tomb or coin, to appear written ‘back to front’ for some unaccountable reason. But it is very improbable that a mediaeval forger would fake the Title in such a sophisticated way.”
(top image from https://www.religionenlibertad.com/; lower image: By Commando 76)