The Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross
Was the Cross of Jesus Discovered in this Room?
Location – Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross is sometimes called the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross, and it is downstairs from the Chapel of Saint Helena. According to tradition, this is where Saint Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, discovered the "True Cross" of Jesus.
Why was the cross discarded here?
This room used to be a cistern for gathering water to irrigate a garden in this area. You can see a hole in the top of the roof that allowed gardeners to lower their buckets and gather this water. Soon after his conversion to Christianity, Constantine I sent his mother, the Empress Helena, to the Holy Land to build churches on the sites most relevant to the life of Jesus. Her primary focus was to build the church we are in now, but at the same time she also made it her goal to find the true cross of Jesus. When she arrived here, it is believed that she was told by the Christians living in Jerusalem that the cross was discarded in an ancient cistern on the day that Jesus died.
Why did they believe that the cross was in this cistern? Jesus died at 3:00 PM, just before the Sabbath, which was to begin at 6:00 PM. Since the tradition of the Jews required that people be buried on the same day that they died, His disciples had to quickly clean, anoint and bury Jesus, and also to dispose of the bloody crosses within three hours, lest they be considered unclean according to Jewish law. There wasn’t much time. It is believed that His disciples hastily threw these crosses into the cistern, and there they stayed until Helena discovered them in 326 AD.
The Cuts on the Ceiling.
This room used to be a stone quarry. You can see by the geometric cuts in the stones above you that this is true. These stones were used for building projects around Jerusalem, going back probably as far as 800 BC. In around 200 BC this quarry was abandoned, and it was then turned into a garden. This garden is mentioned in John 19:41. The room was then converted into a cistern that provided water for the garden.
The left side of this chapel is under the custody of the Catholics, whose altar features a life-sized statue of the Empress Helena holding a cross.
How do we know that Helena actually discovered wood that was originally the cross of Jesus?
Any skeptic could ask, “Isn’t it just as likely that what Helena found was actually timber used in the Roman emperor Hadrian’s building project when he erected a temple to the pagan goddess Venus on this very spot in 135 AD? Surely when Hadrian built this Temple there was hewn lumber and scaffolding used to build it. Couldn’t the lumber that Helena discovered have been left over from Hadrian’s construction project?”
That sounds plausible, except for one thing – Empress Helena had a historian, named Eusebius. And he wrote about the destruction of Hadrian’s Temple. He writes “…(the emperor Constantine) gave further orders that the materials of what was thus destroyed, both stone and timber, should be removed and thrown as far from the spot as possible; and this command also was speedily executed (Life of Constantine, Book 3, Chapter 27).
This means that any timber that was determined to be from Hadrian’s Temple was hauled away, and that the cross of Jesus was apparently identified as not being wood from Hadrian’s project, not looking like the construction wood that was eventually hauled off.
Helena’s excavators pulling a cross from the abandoned cistern near Golgotha.
We can only assume that what Helena’s excavators found looked like a cross.
From a purely theological point of view, I cannot believe that the cross of Jesus was subsequently used by any other person – that it was holy and dedicated to Jesus alone.
In the center is the altar where it is believed that Helena’s excavators found the True Cross. Flanking this altar on both sides are frescos.
The Greek Orthodox Church owns the right side of the chapel, and there are 12th-century Crusader frescoes on these walls.
How did Helena know which was the cross of Jesus?
The exact place where it is said that Helena found the three crosses is believed to be behind the metal altar railing. But how did she know which one of these was the cross of Jesus? There is another legend (Socrates Scholasticus, 1:17) that says that an elderly woman with an incurable disease was asked to touch the three crosses. When she touched the third cross she was immediately healed, and so that cross was determined to be the one on which Jesus died.
What happened to the True Cross?
The answer to that question came from Cyril of Jerusalem, who was alive when Helena came here, and this is what he wrote: "The whole earth is full of the relics of the cross of Christ.” (Catechetical Lecture 10:19, 348 AD) And he also said,
"The holy wood of the cross bears witness, seen among us to this day, and from this place now almost filling the whole world, by means of those who in faith take portions from it." (Catechetical Lecture 10:19, 348 AD)
This means that cross was splintered up and sent throughout the world. Today there are two pieces of this cross on display in the Treasure Room of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. With the exception of a few brief years, they have been here ever since the day that the cross was discovered.
For everyone who wears the cross, it’s more than just a Christian emblem. It’s a symbol of the torture and death of Jesus. But it’s even more than that. For those of us who love the Lord, it’s a symbol of our own death, just like the Apostle Paul said in Galatians 2:20
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”