10 May 2011

3 May - Invention of the Holy Cross

Gardening: It is traditional to plant kidney-beans today

Today in the traditional calendar is the feast of the Invention, or Finding, of the Holy Cross, also known as Inventio Crucis and Holy-Rood Day.

Cima da Conegliano, 1495, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

"Invention" in this instance refers to the act of discovery, of 'finding out', rather than to the act of creating something which had not existed before.  The story of the discovery of the True Cross by Saint Helena is well-known - how the eighty-year-old empress traveled to the Holy Land, searching for the Cross on which Our Lord was crucified; how she took counsel of the locals, whose memories, handed down from their fathers, led her to the very place of the crucifixion; how she found three crosses and determined the True Cross when its touch healed a chronically ill woman.

But this was only part of the story which excited the medieval imagination, for the Cross had its beginnings in the time of Adam.

It was said that when Adam was in his last illness, Seth (his third son) went to the gates of Paradise and received from the Archangel Michael a branch from the Tree from which Adam had eaten and brought sin into the world (or, alternately, seeds from the Tree of Mercy).  Finding his father dead upon his return, Seth planted the branch on Adam's grave (or the seeds under his tongue), which grew and flourished into a tree.

It became so beautiful a tree, that Solomon had it cut down and carried to his palace.  Upon her arrival at Solomon's court, the Queen of Sheba worshiped the tree, saying that the Savior of the world would be hanged thereon, "by whom the realm of the Jews shall be defaced and cease."  Another version said that Solomon used the timber to make a bridge; the Queen of Sheba, recognizing the wood from which the Cross would be made, refused to walk on it, but kilted her skirts and forded the river.  Not pleased with the idea of his kingdom coming to an end, Solomon had the tree buried deep in the ground, but it surfaced centuries later when the temple ministers dug a pit for a place to bathe their sacrificial animals.  The tree floated in the water and, like the Pool of Bethesda, invalids gathered around it, for when an angel descended to trouble the water, the first man to enter came out healed and whole.  It was from this timber that the Cross of Our Lord was made.  And so the Golden Legend declares:"the cross by which we be saved came of the tree by which we were damned."