Outside of visiting the Holy Land, what better way to contemplate our Lord’s Passion, than to visit the relics of the Passion.
Today’s station church is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. We visited this church a few weeks ago and we return today for good reason. But, before we do, let’s first visit another nearby sight important to the Passion.
We’ll begin today across the street from San Giovanni in Laterano at the Scala Santa, the Holy Stairs. These stairs were once attached to the Lateran Palace, the former home of the popes. Pope Sixtus V had them moved to their current spot in 1589 to lead up to the Papal Chapel, known as the Sancta Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. The chapel was known as such because of the great relics it housed, including a bit of bread from the Last Supper, Saint John the Baptist’s coat, Saint Matthew’s shoulder, Saint Bartholomew’s chin and the heads of Saints Peter, Paul, Agnes and Euphemia. These relics have since been moved. Above the altar is engraved the phrase: NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCUS, that is, there is no holier place in all the world.
So, that explains why the chapel is holy, but what about the stairs?
In the fourth century, Helena, Constantine’s mother, traveled to the Holy Land in search of relics from Christ’s Passion. One relic she returned with was the staircase Jesus ascended after being scourged when He was condemned to death. The Scala Santa are the stairs which led up to Praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. The tradition that these are in fact the stairs of Pontius Pilate are supported by at least two facts. First, the marble is the same type that was common in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Second, archeological analyses has revealed that the stairs are missing from Pilate’s Praetorium.
The twenty-eight marble stairs are now encased in wood. Pilgrims may ascend the stairs only on their knees. Along the way up are several rings of glass that reveal drops of Christ’s blood. Climbing the stairs is often the highlight of many on my pilgrimages. It can be a very powerful experience and it’s always one of my first stops when I visit Rome.
Now, just a short walk through a park brings us to today’s station church, Santa Croce. The last time we were here I promised to explain how the church got it’s name. As I mentioned earlier, Saint Helena traveled to the Holy Land in search of relics from the Passion. She was quite successful. But to understand how she was able to find such relics, we must go back a few years to the time of the Crucifixion.
We know Christ was crucified along side two others on a hill called Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. After his death he was entombed in a sepulcher and all the instruments used for the crucifixion were buried. So, the crosses, nails, swords even the crown of thorns were all buried together.
Moving ahead 40 days, Christ ascended into Heaven and his followers began making daily pilgrimages to the spot where he died. This angered the pagans and occasionally fights would break out.
The emperor Hadrian did not like all the fighting, so he decided to get rid of the problem. He had two huge temples built and dedicated one to Jupiter and one to Venus. One temple was over the sepulcher, the other over the burial place of the crosses, nails, swords and crown of thorns. In building these temples he made the pagans happy and kept the Christians away. And I’m sure he was quite proud of himself.
But, he was unknowingly doing us a great favor, because though he did in fact cover up these sights, he was also quite obviously marking their location.
Now skipping ahead about 300 years and moving back to Rome. A few weeks ago we visited the church of San Marcello al Corso. There I recounted, very briefly, the story of Constantine’s battle at the Milvian bridge. It was at this time that he had his conversion to Christianity. His mother soon followed and she became a huge collector of relics. Her greatest quest was the True Cross.
Though quite young at the time (she was in her 80’s) she set sail for Jerusalem to find the True Cross.
Her son had ordered all the pagan temples be torn down and replaced with Christian churches. Two of these temples were the Temples of Jupiter and Venus. Everyday Helena would dig through the rubble looking for anything that might lead her to the True Cross. She prayed for a sign from Heaven and one day her prayer was answered.
She ordered the workers to start digging in a certain spot and eventually they came across a block of wood with writing on it. The writing was in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. And written was: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, I.N.R.I. So, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
They continued digging and quickly found three whole crosses. You can imagine how excited they must have been. But, there was a problem. Since the Titulus, that’s the title part of the cross with I.N.R.I., was detached, they had no way of knowing which of the three crosses was that of Christ’s. And while the Good Thief’s cross might be nice to have, who really wants that other guys?
They needed to determine which was the true cross. At the suggestion of a local bishop, they took all three crosses to the house of a dying woman. They touched the first cross to her and nothing happened, the second, again nothing, then the third. At this point she rose from her bed and walked across the room praising Christ for her cure.
Now some doubters may wonder how a piece of wood could survive being buried for three hundred years. Let’s remember that Hadrian had the temple built OVER the burial spot. Because of this, the wood from the crosses, the wood from the titulus and the thorns from the crown were not exposed to the elements. Again we can thank Hadrian. Remember though, it was not his intention to preserve them, so don’t give him too much credit.
Helena loaded up her boat with a piece of the True Cross, part of the Good Thief’s cross, the titulus, some thorns from the Crown of Thorns and a few nails. And if that were not enough, she brought back lots of soil from Golgotha.
When she returned home she had a church built in her palace. The dirt she brought back was spread all around the property and the church took the name: Basilica Sanctae Crucis in Hierusaleme, or the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
Today, the relics are very beautifully displayed in a side chapel. The church is almost always empty, which is sad given the treasures it holds, but it’s great for the pilgrim that does make the journey here. Unlike many relics, one is able to get, literally, inches from the relics of the Passion. And with so few visitors, one can often take as long as one needs to examine the relics and reflect upon what Christ was going through during the Passion.
Tomorrow we’ll visit San Giovanni in Laterano for Holy Saturday.