Saturday, January 5, 2013

St. Helena

Yesterday's post mentioned a nail from Christ's cross that had been possessed by the Emperor Constantine (c.272-337), the first Christian Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. We are told he had been given the nail by his mother, Helena.

Finding the True Cross, Agnolo Gaddi, Florence 1380
Flavia Julia Helena (246-330) was born in Drepanum in Asia Minor (re-named "Helenopolis" after her death by Constantine). There is a tradition in England that says she came from Colchester, a town that nowadays has schools named for her and a road named for Constantine, but since Colchester was Rome's capital city in Britain at the time, perhaps this tradition has a more mundane and municipal explanation.* Much has been made of Constantine's conversion to Christianity and his decree that it become the official religion of the Roman Empire, but his mother did something that would help to bring focus on the new religion.

How she first came into the Roman picture isn't clear. One story tells that Constantine's father, Constantius, met her in Asia Minor while stationed there on behalf of the Emperor Aurelian. Constantius met a woman wearing a silver bracelet identical to one he was wearing, and took it as a divine sign that they should be together. Some contemporary historians call her Constantius' wife, some his concubine (but those were rivals of Constantius who were trying to de-legitimize Constantine). St. Jerome (c.347-420), with perhaps an attempt at some sort of fairness rather than a historian's lens, refers to her as both.

She had a checkered career, taking part in many acts that may have been politically convenient but would not now be considered proper Christian behavior. She also had a reputation, however, for acts of charity to the poor, and for worshiping in humble attire. Her greatest contribution to Christianity came when Constantine gave her unlimited resources to find relics connected with the new religion. She set out for the Holy Land. Eusebius of Cæsarea (c.263-339) credits her with establishing the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (commemorating Christ's birthplace), the Church of the Mount of Olives (commemorating Christ's ascension into heaven), and she may have been responsible for a church in Egypt that commemorates the burning bush of Moses.

According to legend, she began an excavation...somewhere...and lo and behold, unearthed three crosses. The story of the Crucifixion immediately sprang to mind, but she wanted empirical (pun intended) evidence. With the help of Bishop Macarius, each of the three crosses was brought into contact with a local woman who was deathly ill. Contact with the first two produced no effect, but contact with the third caused the woman's health to return immediately. They realized that they had located the True Cross on which Christ had been crucified.

The true era and business of holy relics could now begin...and did it ever!

*This is from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniæ [History of the Kings of Britain], and makes Helena the daughter of Coel of Colchester, the "old King Cole" of nursery rhyme fame.

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