This article is about Constantine the Great, his mother Helena, and the conversion of Constantine.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1995. 3 pages.

Impress by An Empress

What ere she meant by it, bury it with me, for since I am Love's martyr, it might breed idolatry, if into other's hands these relics came to be


Helena was a woman of obscure and very low birth. Although very little is known about her parentage or her place of birth, early historians say that she probably earned her living as a stabularia, a landlady of the lowest kind of inn where only animals and the poorest of the poor were lodged. It is thought that this inn was in Dreparum, in the province of Pontus, now part of Turkey. At some point in Helena's drab existence, she became attached to the household of a soldier named Constantius. This rather high-ranking officer, contracted some sort of marriage with her. Constantius was not particularly good-looking. A native of Yugoslavia, he had been nicknamed Chlorus – “the pale-faced.” Constantius and Helena had a son whom they named Constantine. Brought up on pagan myths, Helena had no idea that the babe she was cradling would grow up to be the first Christian emperor.

Constantius, the pale-faced, was very much the up-and-coming man in the Roman Empire. Successful in battles, he was popular and his marriage to Helena occurred very early in his military career. Her penniless state did not bother him at the beginning – she warmed his bed and he looked no further. In 289 A.D., however, about ten years of marriage later, this lowly alliance no longer satisfied him. His aspirations had grown august and he divorced Helena in order to be free to marry the adopted daughter of the emperor Maximian. Although he had more children by his second wife, it was Helena's son, Constantine, who remained his favourite. And when Constantius died, having attained the title of Caesar from 304-306 A.D. Constantine selected him. The rejected Helena was now mother to an emperor. From the indigent post of landlady, she had risen to the rank of Augusta – empress.

Constantine was a soldier as his father had been a soldier. In one of his battles he allegedly had a vision of the cross. This vision convinced him to fight; convinced him to trust the Christian God. The outcome of this battle at Milvian Bridge near Rome in 312 A.D. was victory for Constantine. From then on he espoused Christianity and mother Helena, thankful to the God who had helped her son, espoused with him.

An enthusiastic convert to Christianity, Helena made a pilgrimage to Palestine. She toured many Biblical sites and with her imperial wealth established churches and shrines. After her grand tour it became fashionable for other Christians as well to visit the Holy Land.

Luther said: “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in that is really your God.” Helena's pagan upbringing, an upbringing in which idol worship had been prominent, explains to some extent why, during her pilgrimage, she became so interested in excavating for objects of the past. She searched Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine high and low for items which she could touch and see. Possibly also, her mentors in Christianity had not done a proper job in explaining the faith. And lastly, maybe the Holy Spirit simply had not worked in her heart. Whatever the case, Helena, a classic rags-to-riches lady, was instrumental in the blasphemous beginnings of Roman Catholic relic worship.

Ambrose, bishop of Milan, wrote (in about 386 A.D.):

Helena went to visit the Holy Places, and the Spirit came upon her, urging her to seek the wood of the cross… then she laid open the ground and cleared away the rubble: she found three crosses jumbled together, concealed by debris and this hidden by the devil – but he could not wipe out the glory of Christ. Now she hesitated, for she knew that two robbers had been crucified with the Lord: but the Holy Spirit inspired her to investigate further, and she therefore sought out the cross which had stood in the middle. Yet the crosses might by chance have become mixed up in the rubble, and have changed places. Turning to the Scriptures, however, she found that the midmost cross had been distinguished by a label attached to it, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Thus the truth was established, and the true cross of Salvation was revealed by its label… She also sought the nails with which the Lord was crucified, and found them. She caused a bridle-bit to be made from one of these nails, and set another in a diadem… and these she sent to her son, the Emperor Constantine.

So much for Ambrose's report. And so much for Helena. It seems that when she died, at the ripe old age of 80 in 330 A.D. she was already being venerated as a saint.

There is no doubt from history books that Constantine's was beneficial for the church. Most children are able to relate the story of how he marched on Rome in 312 A.D. The armies of his adversary Maxentius were four times the size of his own. Surely a cause for nail biting. The control of Rome and sole rule of the Western Empire were at stake in this battle. According to Eusebius and Lactantius, two Christian writers, Constantine sought help in prayer from the God of the Christians. Both Eusebius and Lactantius were convinced that Constantine truly had either a dream or a vision in which he saw a cross of light emblazoned against the sun with the words in hoc sign vinces: In this sign you will conquer. He then ordered the monogram of Christ to be painted on his soldiers' shields. The consequent battle was a victory for Constantine and he embraced the God of the vision. But had he and his mother become true believers? – or were they merely a superstitious family, products of their time?

Constantine's conversion was not accompanied by a sharp break with former paganism. His religion was secured by military might. He was baptized only after becoming mortally ill, just days before his death. Yet his Edict of Milan changed the course of history and gave Christians freedom of worship in 313 A.D. And in 324 A.D., when he finally ruled the entire Roman world, the empire officially became Christian. Added to this are his legal enactments as emperor, dealing with the treatment of slaves and prisoners, with the exposure of surplus children, with marriage and infidelity. These enactments show Christian principles. There is no doubt that God used Constantine and the mother he so highly respected, to establish the Christian church of the fourth century.

Possibly Helena did find a cross when she visited Palestine. A cross was venerated in Jerusalem during the fourth century. In fact, it was held in such esteem that those who bowed before it were carefully watched to make sure that they did not bite pieces off as personal souvenirs. The public was relic hungry – and, sad to say, Helena fed it by poor example. A skeptical generation of people, already present in Jesus' time and still alive and well in ours, they desired a religion of emotion and miracles. Marvels were circulated concerning the cross – the most fantastic being that the dead would come alive when stretched upon it.

Sustained by Constantine's governance, Christians found themselves in a different position than before. Because the emperor and his mother supported the church materially, the door between the world and the church began to open substantially. Christianity and Roman culture began to meld. The size of church buildings changed almost immediately. These churches were erected, not just in Palestine, but all over the empire. Grand, towering edifices, they did not in the least resemble the small, simple structures Christians had worshipped in before. Their grandeur brought about changes in worship. Liturgy became more dramatic, as befitted the size of the churches. Because the emperor and his mother had become the number-one laypeople in church, simple ceremony was no longer enough. The pomp of the court flowed over into the sanctuary to honour them. Processionals, lights and robes were introduced.

By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was a dominant force in the empire and as time went on Helena's fame grew. Churches were shamelessly dedicated to her person and lamps and candles were lit in her memory. In the 15th century she was credited by an Englishman named Capgrave as having found “the crybbe that our Lorde was leyed in and part of the heye therein, and our Ladye's smock and the bodyes of the Thre Kynges.”

When she died in 330, the blasphemous practice of relic worship had begun in earnest – a practice she had wittingly encouraged. It is to be wondered whether Helena, born in obscurity and poverty, also died in poverty. Had she and her son conceived the real truth of the cross? We do not really know. God, who see the hearts of men, will judge!

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