Sts. Constantine & Helen (May 21)

THE CHURCH HAS USED MANY TERMS to describe the saints. Some of these are common to all the historic Churches, such as apostles or martyrs. The Eastern Churches also speak of some saints as “Equal to the Apostles,” believers who were responsible for bringing the Gospel to significant groups of people or nations throughout the world. The first of them were St Mary Magdalene, who announced the Resurrection to the dispirited followers of Jesus, and St Takla, the first woman martyr.

The Church has called Equal to the Apostles those who have been responsible for bringing the Gospel to previously pagan territories, such as Ss Cyril and Methodius and St Clement of Ochrid, who evangelized the Slavs of Moravia and Macedonia during the ninth century. An unlikely evangelist given this title is St Nino, the enlightener of Georgia. The Roman historian Tyrranius Rufinus (c345-410) recounts her story as told him by a Georgian prince. Nino, taken captive during the early fourth century, came to the attention of the queen when a sick child was healed by her prayers. She eventually brought the queen and then the king to Christ. Mass conversions followed.

Among the Equals to the Apostles honored in the Eastern Churches are those rulers who first established or championed the Church in their realms. Chief among them are Ss Constantine and Helena whose feast is observed on May 21. As the first Roman rulers to profess the Christian faith, they had the greatest impact on both the Church and the empire.

Early Years

Constantine was born in c. 272 to a Roman military officer, Flavius Valerius Constantius and Helena, whom some ancient sources call his wife and some do not. St Ambrose of Milan says that she was a stable-maid. Sometime before 289, as Constantius’ career prospered, he married the daughter of Emperor Maximian. Helena and her son were sent off to the Eastern court of the emperor in Nicomedea, Asia Minor (Izmit, Turkey today). Helena never remarried and lived quietly with her son.

Constantine and the Church

Scholars now feel certain that Constantine had embraced Christianity some time before his famous victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. He remained a catechumen throughout his life. As his death approached, he put aside his imperial regalia and was baptized, never taking them up again. Constantine reversed the fortunes of the Church in the Roman Empire in every aspect of its existence, beginning with:
The Legalization of Christianity The last great persecution of Christianity, begun by Emperor Diocletian in 303, was not enforced in the West by Constantius or Constantine. The persecution was formally ended in 311 by Galerius who declared Christianity a religio licita (a form of worship acceptable) in the empire. The growing number of Christians made their support a bargaining chip for the warring rivals for power. Their support turned to Constantine during his struggle against Maxentius when he marked his standards with the ☧ (Chi-Rho), the first letters of the name of Christ in Greek. One of Constantine’s advisors, Lactantius, wrote that he did this in response to advice received in a dream “to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers.” The contemporary historian Eusebius wrote that this dream was preceded by a vision: Constantine “… saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces” (with this sign, you shall be victorious.) In 313, after defeating Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in which property confiscated from Christians during the persecution was ordered restored “without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.” While these edicts expressed only a toleration of Christianity, Constantine actively promoted it.
Faith & Order in the Church To promote unity in the empire Constantine fostered unity among Christians. In 325 he called the first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) to give it a universally recognized faith and structure.
A New Christian Capital Constantine sought to distance his empire from its pagan origins. In 330 he built Constantinople as a New Rome, free of pagan temples and dotted with great churches, thus minimizing the influence of the old pagan elite and the shrines with which the Old Rome abounded.
Enhancement of Worship As previous emperors had endowed and built pagan temples, Constantine began constructing Christian shrines and basilicas, including those at Bethlehem, Constantinople and Rome. Most famously, he developed Palestine as a Christian Holy Land and Jerusalem as the “Mother of the Churches.”

Helena and the Holy City

In 312, with Constantine poised to take over the empire, Helena was recalled to the imperial court where she remained as a close confidant to her son. She was given the imperial title Augusta in 325.

There are conflicting stories concerning when Helena became a Christian. In the Ecclesiastical History by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-458) we are told that Helena (already a believer) influenced her son to become a Christian. Eusebius, on the other hand, wrote in his Life of Constantine (c. 339) that Helena became a Christian through her son’s influence. In any case, Helena was known for her piety, her regular presence at divine services, and her generosity to the poor. As Eusebius wrote, “This admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.”

In fulfillment of a vow Helena undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine, although she was almost 80 years old. According to Eusebius, Helena “… though now advanced in years, yet gifted with no common degree of wisdom, had hastened with youthful alacrity to survey this venerable land and at the same time to visit the eastern provinces, cities, and people with a truly imperial solicitude. As soon, then, as she had rendered due reverence to the ground which the Savior’s feet had trodden, according to the prophetic word which says “Let us worship at the place on which His feet have stood,” she immediately bequeathed the fruit of her piety to future generations; for without delay she dedicated two churches to the God whom she adored, one at the grotto which had been the scene of the Savior’s birth; the other on the mount of His ascension.”

St Helena is also credited with establishing churches on Mount Sinai (site of St Catherine’s Monastery), and in Cyprus (site of the Stavrovouni Monastery). She reposed in 328/329, shortly after returning from this sacred journey, and was buried near St. Peter’s in Old Rome.