Wednesday, May 13, 2015

St. Helena (255-330): The Empress Who Discovered the True Cross by Chris White

St. Helena--St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

Let me ask you a question: what is the main symbol of Christianity?  If you said “the cross” you would be correct Biblically (Gal. 6:14, 1 Cor. 2:2) and factually (nearly every church in the world displays a cross somewhere in its building), but not so historically.  If I could put you in a time machine and send you back to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries AD, you would find many different symbols in use by the church (such as the sign of the fish, the dove, the anchor, even loaves and fishes) but not a cross.  Why so?  Well, for one reason crucifixion was still practiced as a form of capital punishment at the time and it would seem very odd for anyone to wear or display a cross anywhere.  What would you think if you walked into your neighbor’s home and saw a beautiful painting of an electric chair on the wall or possibly a hangman’s noose over the door?  You would probably think this person has an odd taste for home décor at best and at worst a macabre fetish for instruments of human torture.  Secondly, a cross was largely associated with criminal behavior.  Jesus was not a criminal himself, but according to the gospel, as the Son of God he was taking upon himself the sins of all humanity and judicially paying the penalty for them on our behalf.  The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death before a holy and perfect God.  This is what makes Christianity stand apart from all other religions.  Instead of us sacrificing to atone for our sins, God Himself makes the sacrificial atonement on our behalf.  But this took some explaining in the early days of the church because the common understanding was a person who died by crucifixion must be a horrible person and accursed by God in some way.  If Jesus was God and so good, then why would he die in that way?  This is why St. Paul called the cross “folly” and a “stumbling block” to those who have no spiritual understanding (1 Cor. 1:18).  So why did this all change and suddenly the cross become a beloved and universal symbol of Christianity?  This is where the story of St. Helena becomes our important connection. 
The Cross a cherished symbol by Christians

St. Helena was born into a humble family of Bithynia (Northern Turkey).  Her father is believed to have been an Innkeeper or perhaps a shepherd according the bishop Ambrose of Milan.  Helena apparently was a very attractive woman who caught the attention of Constantius Chlorus, a man rapidly rising in the ranks of the Roman military.  Helena became what we would call the common law wife (a concubine) of Constantius and when she gave birth to their son he was given the name Constantine.  This son would grow up to become the Roman emperor who not only legalized Christianity but openly practiced it and governed as a Christian ruler.

But long before Constantine’s rise to power, his father too was visited by good fortune and was elevated to the rank of Caesar of the western Roman empire.  For reasons of state, Constantius was required to put his wife Helena away and marry the daughter of the Augustus (the Emperor).  Constantine remained with his father living in Britannia (England) and Helena went into seclusion and obscurity for many years.

When Constantius died unexpectedly, his son, now a general in the Roman army, is proclaimed the western Caesar and through conquest and acclamation of the people begins his meteoric rise to power.  When Constantine is firmly in control he brings his mother out of seclusion and gives her a place of honor and leadership in his court as the Imperial mediatrix or Augusta.  By this time Helena herself is also a Christian with a reputation for acts of charity and devotion to Christ.  As Augusta, Helena is given the Sessorian Palace in Rome where she lives and helps conduct governmental affairs in the west while her son is building and ruling in the east from the new capitol he named ever-so-modestly Constantinople.

It is now the year 325 AD.  Constantine the Great respects freedom of religion but believes Christianity is true and that Jesus Christ has raised him up to unite the Roman empire under the Christian faith.  Paganism is tolerated but is no longer supported by the state as Constantine lavishes public and private funds on the Church building magnificent buildings and elevating the clergy, once poor and beleaguered by persecution, to positions of honor and yes, even wealth, in society.  The fortunes of the church had changed rapidly, but Constantine was reversing a governmental policy of repression and persecution that had been going on for several centuries.  And he believed the future blessing of the empire hinged on promoting the faith of Christ in every way he could.

One of the unique ways Constantine promoted Christianity was through what some have termed “sacred geography.”  Rome had always been the capital of the empire and to its citizens, both Christian and pagan, the very heart of civilization.  But part of the reason why Constantine moved his capital city to Byzantium (before renaming it Constantinople) was for a fresh start.  Rome had been a city long polluted with idol worship and paganism.  The new capital was to be a place marked by Christianity.  In fact later visitors were so impressed with the splendor of the city and its many, many churches, they wondered if it wasn’t already a province of heaven.  But Constantine took this even one step further. Part of his empire was a province called Palestine by the Romans, and it was the very stage where Jesus Christ lived his life, conducted his ministry, suffered death on the cross, rose from the grave, and will be returning in the future.  This was holy ground and it must be preserved to reinforce the faith of Christians.  And just as Christianity triumphed in Rome, its triumph would also be shown in Jerusalem through Constantine’s efforts.
Israel named Palestina by Romans

Israel has a very sad history after Jesus.  When he arrived in Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus looked upon the city with its great temple and with a heart of sadness prophesied that it would be left desolate (Mt. 23:38).  When the chief priests rejected Jesus of Nazareth before Pontius Pilate they declared “we have no king but Caesar (Jn 19:15)!”  They really did mean to reject Christ, but the stuff about Caesar, not so much.  Within one generation, sedition was in the air and Rome enthusiastically retaliated destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD.  Nearly 62 years later the Jews under Simon bar Kokhba attempted to seize control of Jerusalem and restore the Temple.  After the failure of this revolt,  the emperor Hadrian kicked all Jews out of Jerusalem and changed the name of the city to Aelia Capitolina.  The Temple mount, so sacred to the Jews, was defiled with a shrine dedicated to Jupiter built on top.  Wanting to be equally offensive to Christians, Hadrian had a temple of Venus built over Golgotha, the very place Jesus was crucified.  Jerusalem eventually became a small, run-down city that was a mere shadow of its former glories.  Its population included a small Christian community, a few stalwart Jews and a lot of Bedouins and foreigners who were down on their luck.  But now, after nearly 200 years, on outskirts of Jerusalem the Empress Helena and her royal entourage were arriving on a very special assignment.

Modern pilgrims trace Christ's steps on Good Friday
Constantine had sent his mother with a large amount of funds and imperial authority to locate, preserve, and aggrandize as many sites pertaining to the gospel as possible.  Even though it is known that Christian believers have always traveled to Israel to see Biblical points of interest, the number of people who actually made this journey is relatively small.  Helena, who made her one and only journey to Israel at age 79, is rightly the mother of Holy Land pilgrimages.  In fact, it is either her or Constantine that is credited with first referring to Israel as the Holy Land.  But from Helena’s time to the present day, Christians have for reasons of faith, penance, and simple curiosity have ventured in great numbers to Israel to see the sites where the Gospel drama unfolded.

When Helena arrived in the Holy Land she was baptized in the Jordan river, visited Bethlehem and the cave where Joseph and Mary welcomed Jesus into the world, and went in search of the places where Jesus was crucified and then buried and rose from the dead.
Helena also built church of Nativity

That Calvary could still be found nearly 300 years later is neither impossible or even improbable.  All sorts of important events and their locations are recalled by locals long after they occur.  Humans are story tellers by nature and most history, even if not totally accurate, is oral before it is committed to writing.  Combine this with the knowledge that within a century after the crucifixion of Jesus, there was a shrine of Venus built there, the spot wouldn’t be hard to detect even if only ruins remained.
However it was detected (and it has been suggested that Helena may have had her Roman guard use torture to get this information), Helena was able to find the Holy Sepulcher (the tomb of Jesus) nearby and there a glorious church has stood (rebuilt several times) up to the present day.  The discovery of the Sepulcher no doubt led to another question: whatever happened to the cross that Jesus was actually crucified on?  A search ensued, and near the area of the Holy Sepulcher in an empty cistern were found the remains of three crosses and separate and unattached the titulus crucis or the sign that hung above Jesus mentioned in the gospels.

Helena and the discovery of the True Cross

Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem who was in attendance suggested the one which was used by Jesus Christ could be determined by a miracle and it was suggested that three incurably ill people be brought to the site and have them touch one of the crosses.  The person that was cured was obviously touching the cross of Jesus.  The experiment happened as described and one of the three people was miraculously cured by touching the cross and so this was identified as the true cross from that day forward.  Of course, it didn’t occur to anyone to have the other two unhealed persons also touch the cross of Jesus and see if they got well too.  But, this was a prescientific era and so the idea of double-checking your results was not yet known.

The story of finding the true cross is found in the works of 4 credible historians of the times.  But there is a huge difficulty in the fact that the premier church historian Eusebius, who was in the court of Constantine and possibly knew the empress as well, speaks only about the discovery of the Holy Sepulcher but says nothing about this relic or that Constantine received a portion of it for himself.  Obviously this is an argument from silence but that silence seems rather loud.  However, it could simply be that for Eusebius the discovery of the Holy Sepulcher was the headline event and the discovery of the relic an entailment that was implied but not mentioned.
Titulus Crucis housed in Rome today

Although the story is not completely absurd, what is absurd is what happened to pilgrims in later years.  As they gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to view the relic of the cross, they were offered an opportunity to bring a sliver of it home as a souvenir for a price.  When asked how it could be possible to do this with so many people coming every year, the pilgrims were told the cross has a special power to regenerate itself.  But this was many centuries after Helena’s visit. 
Typical size of most relics of the cross
 At the time of the visit, a significant portion of the cross was left to be shown the pilgrims when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was completed.  Helena sent to her son Constantine the great a piece of the true cross and two of the nails that were found with it.  Constantine is said to have incorporated the nails in his military helmet and the wood was put inside a huge statue of himself in Constantinople.  This would enhance his image as Christ’s ruler on earth as people would look at him or his statue and would be reminded that they were also in the presence of the relics of Christ’s passion.  Finally, Helena took a significant portion of the true cross and the titulus crucis back to her palace in Rome along with a large shipment of soil from the area of the Calvary that was being excavated for the building of the Basilica that stands today. 

Shortly after her death in 327 AD, the Sessorian palace was converted into a church in Rome called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross of Jerusalem) where pilgrims to Rome, also a holy city, could also be in the presence of these relics.  Today, the only portion of the original Sessorian palace that remains is the small chapel of St. Helena underneath the apse.  It is said that under the floor of the chapel is the soil that Helena brought back from Jerusalem so that technically visitors are standing on an outpost of the Holy Land.  The relics once housed in the wall of the chapel now reside in their own chapel on the top floor of the church.

Helena lived long enough to return to Jerusalem one more time to inspect the progress of the construction of the churches being sponsored by her son and then died in her early eighties in the imperial palace at Nicomedia (in Bithynia the region of her birth).

Pilgrims at Church of Holy Sepulcher today

Pieces of the true cross were shared with many of the churches throughout the Roman empire to the extent that Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem said several decades after Helena that the whole world was filled with pieces of the cross.  With such widespread awareness of the cross and the memory of its appearance, it became after Helena’s discovery the most popular symbol of Christianity as it remains today.

Whether or not the relics of the true cross were actually found by Helena so many centuries ago is a question of endless debate between scholars, skeptics and believers.  Authentic or not, the cross represents a physical connection to the passion of Jesus Christ which is the centerpiece of all Christian hope and confidence and an event beyond doubt.  In that sense, the relics of the cross that exist today are holy as reminders to all who view them that the son of God did in fact take our sins upon himself on a Roman cross that by faith we too may become sons and daughters of the living God.
Empress Helena

Today, over 4 million people a year visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  The church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in Rome has significantly less visitors, but has always been a popular with Christian pilgrims visiting the city.

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“Chapel of St. Helena.”  Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  12, Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Roma, Italy.  Feb. 5, 2015.  Personal visit.

Chidester, David.  Christianity : A Global History.  (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000)

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“Helena”  Dictionary of Christian Biography.  Michael Walsh ed.  (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001)

“Helena”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014)

Leithart, Peter J.  Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2010)

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