When CNN started advertising its Lenten series of documentaries, “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact and Forgery,” I was not at all interested. My experience of modern film-makers’ attempts to make Jesus relevant to today’s average American has been disappointing. They always seem preoccupied with sensational “new” discoveries and side issues that don’t relate to the heart of the Jesus Event. When CNN announced that their first episode would be on the Shroud of Turin, I decided that “Masterpiece Theater” would be more edifying Sunday night viewing.
I felt I had studied enough about the relationship between the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist, so I skipped episode two as well. I watched a bit of the third episode, on the recently uncovered “Gospel of Judas,” and I felt that the writers failed to give the viewers enough historical and theological context to evaluate this manuscript’s significance. I had no interest in watching episode four, which focused on a sarcophagus purported to contain the remains of Jesus’ brother James.
I don’t know why I paused in my channel-surfing this past Sunday night long enough to hear the introduction to episode five, but I found myself hooked. I think it was because the time, place and main characters were all new to me. I had never adequately studied these earliest centuries of the organized church that led up to the popes, Christian kingdoms and great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
From the film, I was reminded about Constantine (AD 272-337), the Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity and helped move the church from a persecuted minority, struggling to survive, to an established religion, whose leaders had power and influence in society. Constantine himself was probably a “Christian” more for political reasons than from conviction, though late in life he appears to have experienced a genuine conversion. However, his mother Helena (AD 250-330) became a devout believer in Jesus and influenced the whole empire in that direction.
In order to connect her faith with its historical roots, Helena, then in her 70s, made a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem. Hadrian, a previous Roman emperor, had built a pagan temple on the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified. Helena had it torn down and then ordered the earth beneath to be excavated. In the process, three crosses were discovered, one of which was identified, through a miraculous healing, as the True Cross on which Jesus died. Helena carried a portion of the True Cross back with her to her homeland. She has been recognized in both Catholic and Orthodox churches as “Saint Helena of the True Cross” for her discovery.
Over time, the True Cross was broken up into many smaller pieces, and during the next few centuries, these fragments of the True Cross were venerated as holy relics and were exchanged among church leaders, monasteries, kings and princes throughout the Christian world. Miraculous powers were often attributed to these relics, and all kinds of superstitions grew around them. Ten centuries later, Martin Luther and the other Reformation leaders focused on this as being among the numerous abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.
Did Helena actually discover the True Cross? Probably not. How many of the fragments that have been preserved into modern times were actually part of whatever wooden material Helena found? Probably none. What healings and other miracles have come through these relics? I’m skeptical that any have. And yet, there’s a powerful symbolism in Helena’s quest. Her search for the True Cross came out of her passion to prove to herself and to others that her faith in Jesus was based on truth, literal, factual truth, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-nails truth. She was almost three-hundred years removed from the actual crucifixion of Jesus, and it was very important to her that her treasured belief was not based on a pipe-dream or wishful thinking. She wanted something to touch, to feel, to connect with through her senses.
As I watched the film, I realized that our experience of Holy Week is something like Helena’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We’re trying to revisit the time and the place where our salvation happened. We hope that on Good Friday, through our services and meditation, we will encounter something of the True Cross, some aspect of Jesus dying love for us that we have not known before.
(The last episode of the CNN series will be on Mary Magdalene. I think I’ll pass on that one.)
— Pastor George Van Alstine