When we speak of the the Early Christian Church, we talk about the Church Fathers, those men who devoted their lives to the nurturing and development of Christianity into a united doctrine and faith. Whom they all are varies on what is used to define them, but there are less than 40 of them. These men shaped and defined much of what Christians continue to believe today.
We never speak of the Church Mothers, because the Church Fathers, following the dictates of St. Paul, excluded all women from the process. After all, they were the ones who chose which books were included in the official Bible, and they made certain that no women would hold power. Neat trick that.
Only one woman would be allowed to be venerated, Mary, the mother of Jesus. A huge mythology was invented around her, and all other women were relegated to nothing more than sainthood.
Well, as you have no doubt guessed, it is time for today’s lesson. And the object of the lesson is the woman to whom the Church Fathers, and all Christians, owe true veneration; St. Helena of Constantinople, named Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta. She was the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor.
A huge number of legends have grown up around Helena, and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. Below is my best attempt after detailed research. (The coin is probably the most accurate representation of what she looked like.)
Helena was of Greek or Roman lineage, and was living in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. She worked as a tavern girl. She was probably already a Christian at the time. In 270 she met a rising Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Valerius Constantius, and the two became lovers. She gave birth to their only child, lavius Valerius Aurelius Constantius on February 27, 272. The Romans had a number of different types of marriage, and it is not possible to know whether she was Constantius’ official wife or just his mistress. The family stayed together as Constantius moved up the ladder of power.
Something has to be said about the structure of the Roman Empire at this time. It was know as the Tetrarchy, which means “rule by the four.” The Empire was so large, and the external threats had grown so dangerous, that, while officially “one empire”, Rome had both a Western Emperor and and Eastern Emperor, both with one subordinate emperor. Rome was the official capital, but no one used it as such; the new capitals were in Asia Minor, Serbia, Milan, and Germany. It was a system that was doomed from the start, but as long as everyone played nice the fiction of unity could be maintained.
Constantius was a brilliant general and administrator, and was fast tracked to become one of the emperors. In 289, he divorced Helena and married Theodora, the step-daughter of the Emperor Maximian. They had six children together. Constantius was declared a sub-emperor in 293 and went off to rule Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania.
Helena did not remarry, but stayed with her son at the various other emperor’s courts. She took great care with his education, making certain her son mingled with the best Pagan and Christian intellectuals of the empire. Constantine became famous as a soldier, administrator, and scholar. He married Minervina, and they had one child, Crispus.
Constantius had become a great power, and many viewed his talented son as a danger. As the Emperor Diocletian became deathly ill, Constantine was forced to flee on horseback to join his father in Britain. His family was not punished, and moved to Gaul to be under his protection.
Constantius died in July 306, and his legions demanded that Constantine replace him as emperor. Like his father before him, Constantine divorced Minervina in 307 and married Fausta, a natural daughter of Maximian. (That made him brother-in-law to his step-mother. Boy, is this getting complicated!). Constantine and Fausta went on to have five children. Constantine loved his step family, and his brothers and sisters attained great positions and marriages due to his influence.
Helena was now the matriarch over a large family. Like most famous men of history, Constantine loved his mother best, and she wielded powerful influence. Christians already controlled much of the bureaucracy in the empire, and they found a ready ally in Helena.
Other new emperors arose, and the Tetrarchy fell into civil war. Constantine, with his empire’s back to the Atlantic Ocean, was in the best position to go after the whole thing. In October 312, Constantine’s army stood outside of Rome itself. It is said that he had his famous vision of Jesus, and added the Chi Rho symbol (a P and X superimposed on each other), the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, which is Christ, to his battle banners and shields. A quarter of a million men then fought the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The army of the emperor Maxentius (Constantine’s brother in law) routed and many, along with their leader, drown in the Tiber River.
Constantine was now the most powerful figure in the empire, and by 324 he was sole ruler. He built a new capitol, Constantinople, which today is Istanbul.
This is where Helena now truly comes into her own. Constantine was originally a worshiper of Mars, but switched to Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun). He declared himself a Christian sometime in his forties, but blended in his favorite aspects of sun worship with Christianity. Constantine declared his mother Augusta Imperatrix, empress with the power to make imperial decisions, and gave her an unlimited budget to build up the Christian Church.
Helena traveled to Syria-Palestine, and visited the city of Aelia Capitolina, formerly known as Jerusalem. The city had been destroyed by the Emperor Hadrian, and been razed down to its foundations more than once, and rebuilt as a Roman town. Jews were forbidden to enter the city, except one day a year.
Here we run into some of the major troubles with historical sites of Jerusalem. The city has been torn down so many times, the locations of various ancient religious sites is really just a guess.
Helena investigated local legends, and declared several sites to be the locations of various events in what was becoming the New Testament. She had the Church of the Nativity built in Bethlehem and the Church on the Mount of Olives built outside Jerusalem, to book mark Jesus’ birth and ascension. Numerous other sites were declared, and churches built. Helena converted lots of pagan churches into Christian centers of worship. Helen was also a huge collector of religious relics, bringing back supposed pieces of the True Cross and the nails of the crucifixion, which were given to her emperor son as good luck charms.
Relics have been a huge problem for Christianity, and one of the reasons Protestants broke away. If you add up all the pieces of the True Cross in existence, it would make a large telephone pole, and the 35-40 nails of the crucifixion you can visit at so many holy sites really makes one wonder.
Helena used her vast resources to seed churches and relics throughout the empire, while her son was holding the earliest Church Councils to define dogma and start work on the first official bibles. Christianity was now the most popular religion in the country, and only the death of the empire could have stopped it. When the empire did finally pass away, Christianity had already obtained a universality that made it the largest religion of humanity today.
As a side note, Crispus was executed by his father in 326, probably on trumped up charges of incest or rape with his step mother, Fausta. It was a plot for her children to rule. A few months later Constantine found out the truth, and Fausta was executed by suffocation in an overheated bath. Her planned worked, however, since all three of her sons would become emperor in their time.
Helena died in 330, with her beloved son at her side. He would follow her only seven years later, dying in 337 outside Constantinople. Her palace in Rome is now the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. She is buried in the Mausoleum of Helena outside Rome, and her skull is a relic in the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier, Germany.
Helena had devoted her early life to grooming her only son, who rewarded her love with honors and power. He even renamed her home town Helenopolis. She devoted her later life to making Christianity an unmovable and necessary part of the daily lives of much of the empire’s inhabitants.
St. Helena is revered as a saint in many of the largest Christian denominations, with several feast days and patronage over several various groups and locations.
The Church Fathers may have developed the doctrine, but it was Helena who helped solidify the worship in the hearts of the people.
You cannot ask for a more lasting legacy than that.