Today is the feast day of Saint Helena. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Helena was born about the middle of the third century, possibly in Drepanum [later, known as Helenopolis], on the Nicomedian Gulf, and died about 330. She was the mother of Constantine the Great. She was of humble parentage. St. Ambrose, in his “Oratio de obitu Theodosii”, referred to her as a stabularia, or inn-keeper. Nevertheless, she became the lawful wife of Constantius Chlorus. Her first and only son, Constantine, was born in Naissus in Upper Moesia, in the year 274.
The statement made by English chroniclers of the Middle Ages, according to which Helena was supposed to have been the daughter of a British prince, is entirely without historical foundation. It may arise from the misinterpretation of a term used in the fourth chapter of the panegyric on Constantine’s marriage with Fausta, that Constantine, oriendo (i. e., “by his beginnings,” “from the outset”) had honoured Britain, which was taken as an allusion to his birth, whereas the reference was really to the beginning of his reign.
Following the birth of their son, Constantine, Helena’s husband (Constantius Chlorus) was elevated to junior emperor and proclaimed Caesar. He promptly divorced Helena and took a new wife. Years later, in 312, Constantine became emperor (renamed Caesar) following a decisive victory in battle during which his father was killed, and his mother, Helena, named empress (renamed Helena Augusta).
Helena converted to Christianity, and through her witness, the emperor made Faith in Christ the official religion of the Roman Empire. As Eusebius wrote, Helena was: “such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.” Helena spent her days in acts of charity, and built many churches on the holy sites of the faith, oftentimes tearing down pagan temples that had been built on the sites.
Tradition links her name with the building of Christian churches in the cities of the West, where the imperial court resided, notably at Rome and Trier, and there is no reason for rejecting this tradition, for we know positively through Eusebius that Helena erected churches on the hallowed spots of Palestine. Despite her advanced age she undertook a journey to Palestine when Constantine, through his victory over Licinius, had become sole master of the Roman Empire, subsequently, therefore, to the year 324.
It was in Palestine, as we learn from Eusebius (loc. cit., xlii), that she had resolved to bring to God the homage and tribute of her devotion. She lavished on that land her bounties and good deeds. Helena “explored it with remarkable discernment”, and “visited it with the care and solicitude of the emperor himself”. Then, when she “had shown due veneration to the footsteps of the Saviour”, she had two churches erected for the worship of God: one was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity, the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. She also embellished the sacred grotto with rich ornaments. This sojourn in Jerusalem proved the starting-point of the legend first recorded by Rufinus as to the discovery of the Cross of Christ.
Despite being elevated to empress of the Roman Empire during her life, she worked tirelessly for the poor, released prisoners, and humbly mingled with the ordinary worshipers in modest attire. Throughout her life, Helena built magnificent churches throughout the Holy Land, spreading the Gospel of Christ, and bringing many to the faith through her witness.
Helena was still living in the year 326, when Constantine ordered the execution of his son Crispus. When, according to Socrates account (Hist. eccl., I, xvii), the emperor in 327 improved Drepanum, his mother’s native town, and decreed that it should be called Helenopolis, it is probable that the latter returned from Palestine to her son who was then residing in the Orient. Constantine was with her when she died, at the advanced age of eighty years or thereabouts (Eusebius, “Vita Const.”, III, xlvi). This must have been about the year 330, for the last coins which are known to have been stamped with her name bore this date. Her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the imperial vault of the church of the Apostles. It is presumed that her remains were transferred in 849 to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the French Archdiocese of Reims, as recorded by the monk Altmann in his “Translatio”. (8)
She was revered as a saint, and the veneration spread, early in the ninth century, even to Western countries. Her feast falls on 18 August. Her sarcophagus is on display in the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum.
The True Cross
In the year 326 the mother of Constantine, Helena, then about 80 years old, having journeyed to Jerusalem, undertook to rid the Holy Sepulchre of the mound of earth heaped upon and around it, and to destroy the pagan buildings that profaned its site, Some revelations which she had received gave her confidence that she would discover the Saviour’s Tomb and His Cross. The work was carried on diligently, with the co-operation of St. Macarius, bishop of the city. The Jews had hidden the Cross in a ditch or well, and covered it over with stones, so that the faithful might not come and venerate it. Only a chosen few among the Jews knew the exact spot where it had been hidden, and one of them, named Judas, touched by Divine inspiration, pointed it out to the excavators, for which act he was highly praised by St. Helena. Judas afterwards became a Christian saint, and is honoured under the name of Cyriacus.
During the excavation three crosses were found, but because the titulus was detached from the Cross of Christ, there was no means of identifying it. Following an inspiration from on high, Macarius caused the three crosses to be carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death. The touch of the other two was of no avail; but on touching that upon which Christ had died the woman got suddenly well again. From a letter of St. Paulinus to Severus inserted in the Breviary of Paris it would appear that St. Helena. herself had sought by means of a miracle to discover which was the True Cross and that she caused a man already dead and buried to be carried to the spot, whereupon, by contact with the third cross, he came to life. From yet another tradition, related by St. Ambrose, it would seem that the titulus, or inscription, had remained fastened to the Cross.
After the happy discovery, St. Helena and Constantine erected a magnificent basilica over the Holy Sepulchre, and that is the reason why the church bore the name of St. Constantinus. The precise spot of the finding was covered by the atrium of the basilica, and there the Cross was set up in an oratory, as appears in the restoration executed by de Vogüé. When this noble basilica had been destroyed by the infidels, Arculfus, in the seventh century, enumerated four buildings upon the Holy Places around Golgotha, and one of them was the “Church of the Invention” or “of the Finding”. This church was attributed by him and by topographers of later times to Constantine. The Frankish monks of Mount Olivet, writing to Leo III, style it St. Constantinus. Perhaps the oratory built by Constantine suffered less at the hands of the Persians than the other buildings, and so could still retain the name and style of Martyrium Constantinianum. (See De Rossi, Bull. d’ arch. crist., 1865, 88.)
A portion of the True Cross remained at Jerusalem enclosed in a silver reliquary; the remainder, with the nails, must have been sent to Constantine, and it must have been this second portion that he caused to be enclosed in the statue of himself which was set on a porphyry column in the Forum at Constantinople; Socrates, the historian, relates that this statue was to make the city impregnable. One of the nails was fastened to the emperor’s helmet, and one to his horse’s bridle, bringing to pass, according to many of the Fathers, what had been written by Zacharias the Prophet: “In that day that which is upon the bridle of the horse shall be holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Another of the nails was used later in the Iron Crown of Lombardy preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Monza. Eusebius in his Life of Constantine, describing the work of excavating and building on the site of the Holy Sepulchre, does not speak of the True Cross. In the story of a journey to Jerusalem made in 333 (Itinerarium Burdigalense) the various tombs and the basilica of Constantine are referred to, but no mention is made of the True Cross. The earliest reference to it is in the “Catecheses” of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (P.G., XXXIII, 468, 686, 776) written in the year 348, or at least twenty years after the supposed discovery. (4)
In this tradition of the “Invention”, or discovery of the True Cross, not a word is said as to the smaller portions of it scattered up and down the world. The story, as it has reached us, has been admitted, since the beginning of the fifth century, by all ecclesiastical writers, with, however, many more or less important variations. By many critics the tradition of the finding of the Cross through the work of St. Helena. in the vicinity of Calvary has been held to be mere legend without any historical reality these critics relying chiefly upon the silence of Eusebius, who tells of all else that St. Helena did in Jerusalem, but says nothing about her finding the Cross. Still, however difficult it may be to explain this silence, it would be unsound to annihilate with a negative argument a universal tradition dating from the fifth century. The wonders related in the Syriac book “Doctrina. Addai” (sixth century) and in the legend of the Jew Cyriacus, who is said to have been inspired to reveal to St. Helena, the place where the Cross was buried, are responsible at least in part for the common beliefs of the faithful on this matter. These beliefs are universally held to be apocryphal. (See Duchesne, Lib. Pont., I, p. cviii.)
However that may be, the testimony of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem from 350 or 351, who was on the spot a very few years after the event took place, and was a contemporary of Eusebius of Cæsarea, is explicit and formal as to the finding of the Cross at Jerusalem during the reign of Constantine this testimony is contained in a letter to the Emperor Constantius (P.G. XXXIII, 52, 1167; and cf. 686, 687). It is true that the authenticity of this letter is questioned, but without solid grounds. St. Ambrose (De obit. Theod., 45-48 in P.L., XVI, 401) and Rufinus (Hist. eccl., I, viii in P.L., XXI, 476) bear witness to the fact of the finding. Silvia of Aquitaine (Peregrinatio ad loca sancta, ed. Gamurrini, Rome 1888. p. 76) assures us that in her time the feast of the Finding was commemorated on Calvary, that event having naturally become the occasion of a special feast under the name of “The Invention of the Holy Cross“. The feast dates from very early times at Jerusalem, and it was gradually introduced into other Churches. Papebroch (Acta SS., 3 May) tells us that it did not become general until about the year 720. In the Latin Church it is kept on the 3rd of May; the Greek Church keeps it on the 14th of September the same day as the Exaltation, another feast of very remote origin, supposed to have been instituted at Jerusalem to commemorate the dedication of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (335) and thence introduced at Rome. (4)
Image: Crop of Saint Helena of Constantinople: this image is of a panel now in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC, United States). Artist: Cima da Conegliano, circa 1495. (5)
Research REGINA Staff