The composition of the True Cross-or Vera Cruz as the " most catholic" Spaniard calls it-has evidently exercised the minds of a great many devout believers, if one may judge by the number of the legends concerning it.
The Mistletoe, first of all, is said to have been accursed, because of its sour wood was made the cross of Christ. It was then a great forest tree, but on account of this unholy use of its wood it was degraded to a parasite which can only grow upon other trees. For the same reason Mistletoe is always banished from church decorations.
Owing to the mistletoe's connection with the legendary composition of the Cross, many writers of eminence have declared that the "baleful mistletoe" was banished from all church decorations at Christmas. If there were a more valid reason to be assigned for such a neglect, it would probably be in the fact of the mistletoe's association with the Pagan rites of Druidism. But as a matter of fact, the mistletoe, has not always been excluded from the Christmas decorations of a church. The poet Gay calls it the "sacred mistletoe"; and Herrick, referring to the taking down of the Christmas decorations from the church at Candlemas, as already noted on p. 54, says:-
Down with the Mistletoe.
Another legend takes a similar view of the merits of the case. The Oak is blamed for not refusing its services in this great sacrificial rite. We are informed that when the Jews were in search of wood where-with to make the cross, every tree with the exception of the Oak split itself to avoid being desecrated; and the complacent Oak was therefore regarded as accursed.
According to Sir John Maundeville the effect of the World's Tragedy upon all the trees, then in existence, was very peculiar. He says--"A little from Hebron is the Mount of Mamre; and there is an Oak tree which is of Abraham's time, and people call it the Dry Tree. They say it has been there since the beginning of the world, and that it was once green and bore leaves, till the time that Our Saviour died on the cross; and then it died and so did all the trees which were in existence. And there is a prophecy that a lord, a prince of the West side of the world, shall win the Land of the Promise, that is the Holy Land, with the help of Christians; and he shall cause service to be performed under that Dry Tree, and then the tree shall become green and bear both fruit and leaves again."
The quaint names and mysterious properties of the Dry Tree are legion. It is not only called the Arbre Sec, but the Arbre Sol, or Tree of the Sun. Sometimes, indeed, there is the Male Tree of the Sun, and the Female Tree of the Moon. But every one of these oracular trees, in the legends of Christendom, undoubtedly bore some mystic reference to the Cross. The fabulous names have been variously interpreted to indicate the Strawberry tree, Arbutus, Plane tree, Cypress, Mimosa, and what not. Notwithstanding all this, legendary lore often makes the Cross of green wood.
There is another version of the LEGEND OF SETH--to be given presently--which says that Adam had a staff created in the twilight of the approaching Sabbath and bestowed upon him in Paradise. It was handed down to Enoch, and in the line of the patriarchs reached Moses; it having, after the death of Joseph, been set in Jethro's Garden. It was evidently always the same rod of power, destined to form the Cross of Christ.
Sir John Maundeville's Voyages and Travels gives a whole chapter on the Cross and Crown of our Lord Jesus Christ. As to the composition of the Cross, it runs:-
"At Constantinople is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His coat without seams, and the sponge and the reed with which the Jews gave our Lord vinegar and gall on the Cross; and there is one of the nails with which Christ was nailed on the Cross. And some men believe that half the Cross of our Lord is in Cyprus, in an abbey of monks called the Hill of the Holy Cross. But it is not so; for the cross which is in Cyprus is that on which Dismas, the good thief, was crucified.
"And you shall understand that the cross of our Lord was made of four kinds of trees, as is contained in this verse:-
"In cruce fit palma, cedrus, cypressus, oliva."
"For the piece that went upright from the earth to the head was of cypress; and the piece that went across, to which His hands were nailed, was of palm; and the stock that stood within the earth, in which was made the mortise was of cedar; and the tablet above his head, which was a foot and a half long, on which the title was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, was of olive.
"And the Jews made the cross of these four kinds of trees, because they believed that our Lord Jesus Christ should have hanged on the cross as long as the cross might last; and therefore they made the foot of the cross of cedar, because cedar may not rot in earth or water; and they thought that it should have lasted long. And because they believed that the Body of Christ should have stunk, therefore they made the piece that went from the earth upwards of cypress, for it is well smelling, so that the smell of His Body should not grieve men that passed by. And the cross piece was of palm, because in the Old Testament it was ordained that when anyone conquered, he should be crowned with palm; and because they believed that they had the victory of Christ Jesus, therefore thev made the cross-piece of palm. And the tablet of the title they made of olive, because olive betokens peace; and the story of Noah witnessed that when the dove brought the branch of olive, it betokened peace made between God and man; and so the Jews expected to have peace when Christ was dead; for they said that He made discord and strife amongst them.
"And you shall understand that our Lord was nailed on the cross in a recumbent position, and, therefore, He suffered the more pain. And the Christians that dwell beyond the sea, in Greece, say that the tree of the cross that we call cypress, was of that tree of which Adam ate the apple, and that they find written. And they say also, that their scripture says that Adam was sick, and told his son, Seth, to go to the angel that kept Paradise, to pray that he should send him the oil of mercy to anoint his members with, that he might have health. And Seth went, but the angel would not let him come in, telling him that he might not have the oil of mercy; but he gave him three grains of the same tree of which his father ate the apple, and bade him, as soon as his father was dead, that he should put these three grains under his tongue, and bury him so; and he did.
"And of these three grains sprung a tree, as the angel said that it should, and bore a fruit, through which fruit Adam should be saved. And when Seth came again, he found his father near dead. And when he was dead, he did with the grains as the angel bade him; of which sprung three trees, whereof the cross was made, that bare good fruit and blessed, namely our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom Adam and all that come of him, should be saved and delivered from dread of death without end, unless it be by their own fault.
"And you shall understand that the cross of our Lord was eight cubits long, and the cross-piece was three cubits and a half in length. And one part of the Crown of our Lord wherewith He was crowned, and one of the nails, and the spear-head, and many other relics, are in France, in the Kings chapel, the crown being placed in a vessel of crystal richly worked. For a king of France bought the relics of the Jews, to whom the emperor had given them in pledge for a great sum of silver."
And now, to give OTHER LEGENDS OF THE TRUE CROSS, with even greater amplitude of detail:
In the work commenced by Mrs. Jameson, and completed by Lady Eastlake, entitled The History of Our Lord as Exemplified in Works of Art (Longmans, 1864), the History of the True Cross is traced at great length by the device of fitting together the various legends of its origin, discovery, and exaltation.
The story begins with Adam, as related by Maundeville. The sickness of Father Adam was felt one day while he was digging in his garden. He was tired with the labour, pain, and cares of this life; so he sent his son, Seth, to the angel guarding the gates of Eden to ask for some of the oil of mercy which God had promised him when he was thrust out of Paradise. The path to the gates was easily discoverable because of the marks of foot-prints, where no grass had ever grown since Adam and Eve had traced their sad way along it. But the angel at the glorious gates would give none of the oil of mercy, saying only after a period of five thousand five hundred years would it be forthcoming; he gave Seth, instead, three seeds of the tree of which Adam had eaten. According to the instructions of the angel, these seeds were put by Seth under the tongue of Adam upon his death, which took place three days after his return. Adam was so willing to die, that he made merry on hearing the message, and now laughed for the first time since his disobedience.
Seth buried Adam in the Vale of Hebron, where three saplings grew from the seeds. These saplings mysteriously united into one, significant of the Holy Trinity. This tree played many great parts; by it "the waters of Marah were sweetened, and with it Moses struck the rock without calling on God. King David transplanted it to his garden at Jerusalem. Solomon cut it down and would have used it in building the Temple, but the workmen were never able to reduce it to the required size; for sometimes it would be too long, and at others too short. After being thrown aside as useless, there came a sibyl, who sat down upon it to rest, when it set fire to her clothing. This woman, Sibylla, then prophecied that the beam should be for the destruction of the Jews; whereupon her hearers flung it into a stream where it at once rose up and formed a bridge for all wayfarers to pass over. When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she recognised its future destination, and refused to walk over it; she knelt down and worshipped it instead. She had been enlightened in a vision, and told Solomon that upon this holy wood should hang the Saviour of all Father's Adam's posterity. Solomon thereupon overlaid it with gold and silver, and placed it over the door of the Temple; his successor, the wicked King Abijah, coveting this precious metal, stript it, and buried the wood to hide his theft. Years after, when the tree of mercy was forgotten, a well was dug near the place in which it was buried. This was the POOL of SlLOAM, whose healing waters are thus accounted for. When the time of the Passion drew near, the tree floated on the surface of the pool; and the Jews seeing it was fit for their purpose, took it and fashioned the Cross of it. So that by it, all Adam's posterity was healed of sin and redeemed from death.
After the crucifixion the Cross was buried, and hidden from men's eyes, for nearly three hundred years.
The Empress HELENA, inspired by a vision, made her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross. Arrived there with a great train, she assembled all the wise men of the Jews to inquire of them the whereabouts of the Cross. But the wise men were alarmed; becausa one of them, named Judas, had revealed that at the hour in which the Cross came to light, the ancient law and tradition of the Jews should be for ever destroyed. This had been told to him by his father, Simon, whose brother, Stephen, had been stoned for believing in Him Who had been crucified on it.
When, therefore, the wise men professed ignorance, Helena commanded that they should be buried alive. Terrified at this threat, they delivered up Judas, as the one who knew most about the Holy Cross. Not till he had been starved six days and was nearly perishing, did he reveal the secret that the Cross was lying beneath the Temple of Venus, which Hadrian had purposely built on this sacred spot, in mockery of the Christians.
By order of the Empress, the Temple of Venus was destroyed, and every stone taken away. Judas then dug down twenty feet and found three crosses buried there. To discover which was the cross of Christ, Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, suggested that the dead body of a man, which was being carried past to its burial, should be laid upon each of the three. When laid upon the first and the second, nothing happened; but when laid upon the third, the dead man instantly came to life. He walked away giving thanks for his recovery, while the air rang with the lamentations of the evil spirits whose powers were now overcome by the Cross of Christ.
Judas was baptised, and received the name ot Quiriacus. The Empress, not at first finding the NAILS, prayed for their recovery also; and in answer they at once appeared on the surface of the earth shining like gold.
Half the Cross, Helena left in Jerusalem, and the other half she sent to Constantinople, where her son. Constantine, inserted a part of it into the head of a statue of himself, and the remainder was sent to Rome, where it was deposited in the church of St. Croce, expressly built to receive it.
The Nails were distributed to various places. One was thrown into a whirlpool in the Adriatic, and instantly tranquilised its waters. The second was forged into a bit for the bridle of Constantine's horse, in fulfilment ot the mysterious passage in Zechariah xiv., 20. The third nail was placed in Constantine's crown.
Till the year 615 the Cross remained at Jerusalem, when it was carried away by COSROES, king of Persia. To recover this most precious Christian relic, the Emperor Heraclius roused himself from his indolence, and raised a large army to defy Cosroes. When their armies met the two monarchs decided to settle the matter by single combat. Cosroes was overcome, and refusing to be baptised, was slain. The Holy Cross was carried back to Jerusalem with great rejoicing. Arriving at the city, mounted on horseback, and surrounded by a magnificent retinue, Heraclius was astonished to find no gate, but the WALLS of JERUSALEM miraculously built up against his entry. Learning that it was the sin of pride which was besetting him in wishing to enter that gate in pomp through which Christ, the King of heaven and of earth, had entered barefoot, mounted upon an ass, and in all humility; the Emperor shed tears of repentance, stripped himself not only of royal pomp, but of all his vestments, and lo, the wall opened before him, and he entered into the city in a righteous spirit and a Christian frame of mind.
Whole books have been written on the Wood of the Cross. The LEGEND OF SETH has many VARIATIONS. For instance, when Seth got to the Gates of Paradise for the oil promised to the penitent, he was allowed to put his head inside. There he saw in the midst of Paradise a glorious fountain from which flowed the four rivers. "And over the fountain rose a Great Tree, with vast roots, but bare of bark and leaves." A Great Serpent was coiled about its denuded stem; the upper branches reached to heaven, and bore at the top a new-born wailing infant whose tears went down to hell like the roots of the tree. Then, from the three seeds given to Seth, it is a triple shoot which springs up, of Cedar, Cypress, and Pine, symbolising the blessed Trinity.
These eventually unite into one tree; the tree survives and goes through many adventures connected with scripture history, till it is in due course taken from the Pool of Bethesda to make the Cross of our Lord.
An old couplet runs:-
Nailed were his feet to Cedar, to Palm his hands
Cypress His body bore, title on Olive stands.
The four kinds of wood were supposed to represent the four quarters of the world. They are also called the incorruptible woods. The stem of the Cross was always of Cypress because it would remain sound in both earth and water; for the Jews reckoned that the body of Christ would hang as long as the Cross would last.
Another legend says that the tree used for the Cross was cut down by Solomon, and buried by him on a spot afterwards known as the Pool of Bethesda; that about the time of our Lord's Passion the tree floated on the surface of this lake, where the Jews found it, as in the other version.
Of course, the Aspen has been named as yielding the timber for the Cross:-
Far off in highland wilds 'tis said
(But Truth now laughs at Fancy's lore)
That of this tree the Cross was made
Which erst the Lord of Glory bore
And of that deed its leaves confess
E'er since a troubled consciousness.
That the Aspen furnished the wood of the Cross, and that in consequence the leaves of that tree have trembled ever since, is the Syrian form of the legend in connection with this subject.
The poet thus accuses the Aspen:-
On the morrow stood she trembling
At the awful weight she bore
When the sun in mid-night blackness
Darkened on Judea's shore.
Still, when not a breeze is stirring
When the mist sleeps on the hill
And all other trees are moveless
Stands the Aspen trembling still.
THE INVENTION (OR DISCOVERY) OF THE CROSS.
Maundeville relates the following:-
"The Jews had concealed their Holy Cross in the earth, under a rock of Mount Calvary; and it lay there two hundred years and more, till the time of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome. She was the daughter of King Coel, born in Colchester, who was King of England, which was then called Britain the Greater; the Emperor Constantine took her to wife for her beauty, and had by her Constantine, who was afterwards Emperor of Rome."
It was after this finding of the "true cross" by St. Helena that it became an object of adoration. She conveyed a part of it to Constantinople, and originated the Festival of the Finding (or Invention) of the Cross, which the Roman Church celebrates on May 3rd.
(With the Empress-mother Helena the period of Christian Pilgrim Travel really begins).
The Multiplication Of This Holy Relic was very remarkable. Numberless churches claimed to possess some parts of it; the proof of the genuineness being forthcoming in the miracles it was said to perform. There were indeed many persons who believed that the True Cross could be infinitely divided without decreasing. It was in vain that the Iconoclasts (the "image-breakers" who condemned such worship) attempted to overcome the adoration of the cross.