The Story of the Precious Wood that was used to construct the Holy Cross
The precious wood of the Cross is made up of cedar, pine and cypress trees and those who make pilgrimage to the Holy Land can see it in two ways: in its natural form as distinct trees and in the Holy Church of the Resurrection as an object of veneration, in the form of the Precious Cross, sprinkled in the blood of the Crucified Christ.
Information regarding the origins of the tree whose wood became the Cross of Christ can be found in a number of church traditions as well as in ancient Syriac text. The story begins in the time of the Patriarch Abraham when he received the celestial visitors in the form of 3 men (Gen.18), an image of the Holy Trinity, in the plains of Mamre. According to tradition, with their visit at an end, the three angels set off for Sodom but not before leaving with Abraham their 3 staffs. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, took the staffs purposing to burn them in the fire but the particular fragrance they produced made Abraham retrieve them from the flames and keep them as a gift from God. Abraham kept the staffs until he gave them to Lot in the following way.
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot took refuge in a cave with his 2 daughters who in order to conceive offspring made their father drunk and slept with him. The children born to his daughters gave rise to the Moabites and the Ammonites. After this sin Lot prayed asking for the forgiveness of God and also sought Abraham’s counsel as to how he could find absolution. Abraham delivered into Lot’s hands the 3 staffs left by the Angels and instructed him to plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem and to water them with water from the Jordan river. He told Lot that if they blossomed it would signify that God had forgiven his sin. Lot obediently watered the staffs which in due course blossomed and became a tree made up of three woods, of pine, cypress and cedar.
In the time of Solomon, wood was cut from all over the region including from this 3-trunked tree in order to construct the roof of his temple. The craftsmen working on the roof could not use the wood of this tree, however, no matter how they tried to accommodate it within the structure and for this reasons the workers called it shameful.
As the tradition holds, Caiaphas who presided over Christ’s sentencing (Matth. 26,57, John 18,13) ordered that Christ’s cross be made from this three wooded tree which was considered cursed. He believed that with its irregularities Christ would suffer more and His Crucifixion upon it would be all the more shameful.
According to tradition in 326AD the aged mother of Constantine the Great, Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, the Latin name of St Helen, journeyed to the Holy Land with the purpose of visiting and making more widely known the different places where Jesus Christ lived and taught. In Jerusalem she undertook extensive excavations in order to ascertain the location of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection on the hill of Golgotha. She later was led to the discovery of the Precious Cross by the scent of an aromatic plant growing in that place, known to us as Basil. After many excavations three crosses were found, the Lord’s, and those of the two thieves. The church historians Philostorgios and Nicephoros mention that the Cross of Christ was identified after a woman was raised back to life when the Cross was place over her dead body. In the place where the discovery of the Cross was made was a temple of Aphrodite, erected by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135AD after the second destruction of Jerusalem. St Helen ordered the demolition of this temple and in its place she built the beautiful Church of the Resurrection, which, up to this day, remains one of the most important monuments of Christianity. The Cross of Christ was given to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Makarios who installed it into the Church of the Resurrection on 14th September 335AD.
The Elevation of the Precious Cross is celebrated with great splendour every year on 14th September. The Church chants, among other hymns, the well known “Save O Lord thy people…” and distributes sprigs of basil to the faithful, a custom deriving from the tradition that this aromatic plant was found growing at the site of the discovery of the Cross. The Church prescribes a strict fast on this day.
The second Elevation of the Precious Cross is connected with the Byzantine-Persian Wars (602-628AD). In 614AD the Persians ruled Palestine and having plundered and destroyed the sacred places of Christian pilgrimage, they took away the Holy Cross as loot. The fire-worshiping Persians held the Cross in veneration ascribing to it magical powers due to the miracles that were associated with it. The holy symbol of Christianity was recovered by the Emperor Heraclius following his decisive victory over the Persians in 628AD and he brought it first to Constantinople (14th September 629), where it was part of his victory celebrations, and then it was taken to Jerusalem.
The height of the Cross of the Lord was 4.5m and its breadth 2.4m. The historian Pavlinos describes in his 11th letter that although the Cross from the moment of its finding began to be broken up into miniscule splinters for the faithful to take away as a blessing, nevertheless its integrity was not in the slightest diminished! As regards the nails which held the hands and feet of the Lord to the Cross, tradition holds that these were distinct from those of the two thieves in that they had not rusted with the passing of time but looked new. Many pieces of the Cross have survived to this day which are kept as most precious relics, chiefly in the sacred monasteries of the Holy Mountain of Athos. A prophecy of the eschata states that one of the remarkable events of the end of the world will be the reunification of the Precious Cross.