Once in a while, in the rarest cases your own imagination, images conceived in your own heart and mind take to life in someone else’s depiction. That’s certainly how I felt watching this week’s installment of #FindingJesus as the @cnn series presented St. Helena, mother of Constantine and we might say matron to all Christian pilgrims. Her long neck, the graceful sweep of her hands, the pained brow of a troubled but purposed life that held in place the earned crown, took to screen on Sunday’s episode. She was strong, resilient, clever and cunning and it is to Helena we owe the gift of Holy Land pilgrimage and the blessing of pressing our hands into the dust teaming with resurrection life. If we are indeed to be fascinated by early church holy women, we must include St. Helena in the conversation. If we retrace the steps of Jesus, turn over stones this Holy Week, it is to Helena we owe thanks. While her story is dated to later antiquity, her contributions to the Christian church cannot be rivaled.
According to Eutropius, Helena came from a lowly background and St. Ambrose will later explain that Helena was an innkeeper or a stable maid, perhaps much like Rahab who welcomed the Israelite spies. Though it is unknown exactly how, Helena will meet and become involved with Roman General Constantius Chlorus. While later sources consider Constantius and Helena to have been married, by the time he becomes Caesar, Constantius will divorce and/or dismiss Helena to marry another woman, though Helena has borne him a son—Constantine in or around 272. Constantius then sent Helena and Constantine to the court of Diocletian who is known for his empire wide persecution of Christians.
Surviving Diocletian’s court, Constantine distinguished himself as a general and in 306 following the death of his father, Constantine was hailed Augustus and Caesar. It was in 312 that Constantine saw the vision of the Chi Rho and had had his soldiers paint it on their shields. As Constantine rose to power he became more involved with the Christian church, though he also maintained allegiance to pagan gods and practices as evidenced by coinage and other architecture.
According to tradition, soon after convening the Council of Nicea in 325, a period of family strife for Constantine when rumors of his eldest son Crispus’ affair with Constantine’s second wife Fausta as well as Crispus’ plans to usurp his father surface. Constantine has Crispus killed and later learns that the rumor has been Fausta’s creation to further her own son’s interests. Constantine then has his wife killed in a most unpleasant way. It is shortly after all this treachery in 326 that Empress Helena, by now named Augusta sets out to re-trace the steps of Jesus and discover the true cross.
It is Helena’s journey to the Holy Lands which leads to the re-discovery of many important sites for Christianity, previously taken over by Hadrian and others to build pagan temples and shrines. Helena orders the excavations of one of these sites on the prompting of a dream, believing it to be the site of the true cross. Legend is that upon finding crosses underneath the shrine, Helena takes pieces of the three to a dying woman. Upon placing the cross of Christ on the woman, she is healed. Helena then has the cross split into pieces of wood and disbursed through the empire to encourage the faithful. Helena will also have churches built in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives to venerate the life of Christ.
This Holy Week as we read the stories of the Gospels, enact the sacred rituals and remember the life of this Jesus who walked the streets of Galilee and ultimately went up to Jerusalem and Golgotha, let us give thanks also for the woman who first helped us mark these steps so we might follow Jesus in his.
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