The Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem

This month the Franciscans of the Custodia Terrae Sanctae celebrated the Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross with great solemnity in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The feast is assigned to May 7th in this diocese, a peculiarity resulting from the calendar of the local use. Media for the even can be found here, and a documentary about the Franciscans in the Holy Land here.

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The Finding of the True CrossAgnolo Gaddi, Florence, 1380

For centuries curious Christian visitors to the churches of Jerusalem, such as the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria, have found the more ancient, elaborate customs of the Holy City worthy of emulation. One thing at least hasn’t changed! The Franciscans’ commitment to solemnity and tradition has consistently impressed this pilgrim. For instance, community services in the Sepulcher are held almost entirely in Latin, with the Kyriale and the Propers sung in the ancient Gregorian melodies, communion is usually on the tongue, and in my experience, always administered by the clergy. Major feasts are celebrated with 1st Vespers and midnight Vigils, and often on their traditional dates. There are even odder things. For example, one of the peculiar consequences of the Status quo, a the 150-year-old agreement governing the use of the Holy Sepulchre, is that in Jerusalem the Easter Vigil is still held early on Holy Saturday morning.

Perhaps it has something to do with keeping up a tradition: the friars have been protectors of the Holy Sepulcher on and off for over 800 years. Certainly it has something to do with the daily struggle they wage with Copts, Syrians, Greeks, Arabs, and Armenians, all jostling for physical and acoustic space. In the dark and smokey interior of the Sepulcher, one is forced to breathe with both lungs.

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Franciscans leading the Lenten procession in the Sepulcher, Feb. 2017 (Source)

But perhaps I shall have more to say about this later. This article is about the Feast of the Invention in particular. I apologize that I was not able to take many good pictures.

The pilgrim coming to the Sepulchre today finds these ceremonies done in much the same as they have been for several centuries. Ceremonies begin on the eve of the feast, including the stational procession I attended (find the 1925 Ordo here), followed by the Vigil at midnight.

At the commencement of the procession, the Latin Patriarch, the Franciscan friars of the Custodia, and the faithful pilgrims gather in the Chapel of the Flagellation at the north end of the basilica. They then proceed on their daily round about the basilica, visiting each of the sites associated with Christ’s Passion found within the bounds of the current basilica. Each station includes a Gregorian processional chant sung by the friars, oration, responsory, Pater, Ave, and Gloria; recto tono unless it is a feast, like today.

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Franciscans vesting in the sacristy of Saint Savior Church, their headquarters in Jerusalem. These vestments were gifts of Louis XV (Source).

The stations (and their accompanying chants) are:

I ) ad altare Sanctissimi Sacramenti (Antiphon: O Sacrum Convivium)
II ) ad columnam Dominicae flagellatinis (Salve, Columna nobilis)
III ) ad carcerem (En efferata rabies)
IV ) ad altare divisionis vestimentorum Christi (Adeste, pacis Angeli)
V ) ad cryptam Inventionis S. Crucis (Crux fidelis)
VI ) ad sacellum S. Helenae (Fortem virili pectore)
VII ) ad columnam coronationis et improperiorum (Coetus piorum)
VIII) in Sacro Monte Calvario ad locum Crucifixionis D.N.I.C. (Vexilla Regis)
IX ) in sacro monte calvario ad locum ubi Christus in Cruce expiravit (Lustra sex qui iam peregit)
X ) in eodem Monte Calvario ad altare B. Mariae Virg. perdolentis (Stabat Mater)
XI ) ad lapidem unctionis (Pange lingua, vulneratum)
XII ) ad gloriosum D.N. Iesu Christi sepulchrum (Aurora caelum purpurat)
XIII) ad locum ubi Christus apparuit Mariae Magdalenae (Christus triumphum gloriae)
XIV) ad sacellum apparitionis Christi resurgentis matri suae Mariae (Iesum Christum crucifixum)

First Vespers of the feast takes place after the fifth station, in the chapel of the Invention, suitably decorated for the occasion, and with a relic of the True Cross exposed.

The Chapel of the Invention, decorated for the feast this year. Photo courtesy of Shen Yichen.

One poignant peculiarity of the orations and responsories is that the word hic is added wherever appropriate to stress that this place is the physical location in which the sacred events of the Passion took place. Thus at the station of the Unction, the antiphon reads:

“Acceperunt Joseph et Nicodemus corpus Jesu, et ligaverunt illud hic linteis cum aromatibus…” (Joseph and Nicodemus took the body of Jesus, and in this place wrapped it in linen clothes with spices…)

and the oration: “Domine Jesu Christe, qui tuum sacratissimum Corpus, tuorum condescendens devotioni fidelium, inungi hic ab eisdem permisisti….” (Lord Jesus Christ, who condescending to the devotion of your faithful, allowed them to anoint your Most Holy Body in this place…”

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Franciscan procession down into the Chapel of St. Helena. (Source)

The solemn office of the feast itself is very moving. It begins with Lauds and Mass in the Chapel of the Invention. Then the clergy and people process with lit candles, accompanying the relic from the Chapel to the Aedicule (the tomb). This year I guess there were around a hundred people there, including the friars and faithful. We processed around the Aedicule three times with the Holy Cross, singing Fortunatus’s glorious hymn Vexilla regis. Maybe it was the place, or the solemn procession with the Holy Cross itself, but it seemed like the glorious gory verses sprang more vividly to life as we carried the bloody trophy around the Tomb.

After a final blessing with the True Cross, the relic is offered for veneration.

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A Lenten procession around the Aedicule, Feb. 2017. (Source)

Curiously, the May 7th date does not correspond with the any of the traditional dates assigned for celebrations of the Holy Cross. We need to know a bit of liturgical history to understand why.

In both East and West there have traditionally been several feasts commemorating events related to the Holy Cross. The September 14th feast in the current Roman Missal actually encompasses three historical events, each of which formerly had its own feast: the Finding of the True Cross by St. Helena in 326, the 335 dedication of the Constantinian Basilica on the site of Calvary and the tomb, and the return with the Cross to Jerusalem in 629 by the hands of Heraclius, after it had been capture by the Persians in their conquest of Jerusalem. The Byzantines celebrate the same day as one of the 12 great feasts of the liturgical year, and the Armenians and Ethiopians have feasts around the same time.

The Gallican rites had another feast on May 3rd, known as “Roodmass” or the Feast of the Invention of the Cross, traditionally believed to have taken place on May 3rd, 326. The Invention passed thence into the Roman Rite, where it has left deep roots in traditional Catholic countries, especially Spain and Latin America, where the feast day is celebrated with great festivity in the local churches. For example, during the Philippine feasts of Flores de Mayo, the Santacruzan, a ritual pageant celebrating the Invention, is still celebrated every year at the end of May.

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The Queen of Sheba venerates the wood from which the Cross will be made. Fresco by Piero della Francesca in San Francesco, Arezzo. (SourceSource)

For obvious reasons, the Church at Jerusalem has retained the feast of the Invention, but it does not do so on May 3rd. Two events conspired to bring this about.

First, in 1955 Pius XII made May 1st the feast of Joseph the Worker, thus displacing the day of Ss. James and Philip, assigned first to 11th May, at that time the next “free day” in May. Five years later, John XXIII eliminated the May 3rd Feast of the Invention from the universal calendar as part of a general purge of “duplicated” feasts. In the Novus Ordo St. James was moved to the May 3rd date vacated by the Invention.

But it was inconceivable that the feast of the Invention would be eliminated from the local use—how could it be forgotten, in the very city where Christ was crucified? The 3rd now being taken by St. James, the 7th of May was sought as a fitting alternative, partly because the day is remembered in the Armenian calendar as the Apparition of the Holy Cross over Jerusalem in 451, an event recorded by Cyril:

“At the early morning a luminous cross appeared for hours in the sky, from Golgotha (located in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) until the Mount of Olives, so large and shining that all the inhabitants of Jerusalem witnessed it. The appearance was so radiant, that many people went to the Holy Sepulcher to praise God, and understood the cross of light was the fulfillment of the Gospel of Matthew 24: 30 : ‘And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky’.

Because of this Divine sign, a few thousand people were baptized and became Christians.”

The 1925 Ordo for the Franciscan Lenten processions in the Holy Sepulcher can be found here: Ordo Processionum quæ Hierosolymis in Basilica S. Sepulchri D. N. Jesu Christi a Fratribus Minoribus peraguntur. It could be adapted for use in other churches where there is a desire for more elaborate Friday stational processions.


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The proving of the True Cross, Jean Colombe in the Très Riches Heures (Source)

8 thoughts on “The Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem

  1. Were you in the Holy Land with a pilgrimage group of a traditional society or by yourself, if you don’t mind my asking?


      1. Ah, I didn’t know! I have in pdf format some liturgical books with feasts proper to the Latin patriarchate. I could send you those if you don’t already have them.


  2. A bit late to reply, but…

    The Latin Calendar found on the Monastery of Mt. Sinai (c. 8th century, but potentially preserving pre – Arab invasion usage in Roman North Africa / Carthage) has its only Feast of the Cross on this very date (3rd May); 14th September is not celebrated as the Exaltation despite the Byzantine reconquest, presumably because it’s St. Cyprian’s feastday.

    Interestingly enough, connections have been made between the liturgical rites of Latin North Africa and Gaul.

    Find the calendar and references here:

    Liked by 1 person

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