Holy Cross Day is now most commonly observed for remembering and reflecting on the way Jesus died and on the cross as the primary Christian symbol.
Crucifixion involved both public degradation and a lingering, agonising death. There are a number of medical theories as to the actual medical cause of death when someone is crucified. But in Jesus case the strongest theory seems to be that of hypovolemic shock. Jesus was sweating blood in the garden before his arrest – he knew what was coming and this condition has been reported in other prisoners on death-row just prior to execution, it is caused by extreme psychological stress, so our Lord understands stress.
Before being crucified the victim was flogged with a Roman whip called a flagrum, traditionally 39 lashes were given. A Roman flagrum had braided leather thongs with metal balls and pieces of sharp bone woven into or intertwined with the braids. This beating was so severe that at times victims would not survive it. It caused so great a loss of blood that the person would faint (as Jesus did carrying the cross), another indicator symptom is great thirst, and Jesus declared he was thirsty as he hung on the cross, the final telling detail is water and blood came out when they pierced his side with the spear, this indicates the further extreme symptom of hypovolemic shock – water collecting in the lungs and around the heart.
This form of execution was invented by the Phoenicians and Persians, then adopted by the Romans, it was reserved for slaves and foreigners, used in cases of robbery, rioting and sedition. Crosses were a common sight in Palestine during the Roman period. Apart from the usual implications of such a death, the death of Jesus by crucifixion created an additional obstacle to any Jewish follower, since Deuteronomy states:
The early church, living in the triumph of Easter, showed no great interest in the cross as a sign or symbol. Then, in the 4th century, the growth of pilgrimages to Palestine created an interest in places and things associated with Jesus. The Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and later built a new city, Aelia Capitolina, on the site. Golgotha (Calvary) was buried under tonnes of fill.
In the early 4th century, Constantine decided to erect a number of buildings to honour the principal places associated with Jesus. The excavations in Jerusalem for the new basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were supervised by the empress Helena, Constantine’s mother. She discovered in the rubble a piece of wood that she identified as a relic of the true cross. The buildings were dedicated on 14 September 335, and the feast of the dedication was kept annually. The relic of the cross was housed in the basilica.