Helena and Constantine

  • September 2, 2014

Brosen_icon_constantine_helenaMatthew 22:15-22
The Nicene Creed (325)

Over the course of the summer, I have lifted up stories of some of our earliest saints, beginning with a few that are mentioned in our bible, and moving forward in time. Today, we focus on two saints who mark a major milestone in the development of our faith tradition: its acceptance as the religion of an empire. This transition was shaped by two people: the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena. Although you probably won’t find them celebrated as holy figures in the Protestant world, both have been recognized as saints in Eastern churches, and Helena is also recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church.

Not much is known about Helena’s origins, other than that she was a Christian woman without great wealth or social status. She became the wife or consort of a Roman general named Constantius Chlorus. When Constatius was promoted to become the Roman Caesar of the Western territories, he decided that he needed a new wife to fit his new role, and Helena and her young son Constantine were sent away. In time, however, Constantine came to surpass even his father’s political achievements, becoming the supreme ruler over both Eastern and Western portions of the empire. By all accounts, he always maintained a close relationship with his mother, and as he gained status, she was elevated alongside him.

It’s not known whether Constantine became a Christian during childhood, or at some point during his adulthood, or shortly before his death, when he was baptized. We also don’t know what role his mother played in his faith, though she is often given credit for converting him. What we can track is Constantine’s political positions on Christianity throughout his developing career. In 311 CE, he signed an edict of toleration for Christians, ending the greatest organized persecution. In 312, he gave credit for a great victory in the west to a Christian God; some of you may have heard that his soldiers bore the Chi-Ro, a Christian symbol, on their shields during that battle. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, decriminalizing Christian worship and ordering the return of confiscated Church property. Then he commissioned a new Imperial capital, Constantinople, building Christian churches there; unlike Rome, Constantinople had no existing temples from other religions.

As Constantine gradually showed more support towards Christianity, his tolerance of other traditions waned. While he never actively persecuted practitioners of other religions, he withdrew his financial support from their temples, which had a devastating effect. Towards the end of his reign, he even began tearing down Roman temples. Christians enjoyed a greater likelihood of advancement in public life during his reign; however, non-Christians always made up the majority of public servants; no one was required to convert.

This much we know. But we don’t know if Constantine was truly a Christian, or how his faith and his ambitions were related. As one commentator wrote, “oceans of ink have been spilled debating whether Constantine used the church or the church used him, and doubtless both are true.” Could it be enough to know that he ended the greatest era of Christian persecution, and helped the Christian message become public, and prevalent?

But there is something terribly problematic about Christianity becoming the religion of a great empire. This tradition was built around a person who challenged all authority figures of his time – both religious and political.  In fact, Jesus was executed as an enemy of the Roman state. What does it mean for this tradition to become intertwined with an emperor, and an empire?

One of Constantine’s most famous acts was to call together Christian bishops in the first Council of Nicea. He wanted them to come to a consensus on the Arian debate, to determine the nature of the relationship between God and Jesus, a question that was tearing the church apart. A council was held and a creed agreed to. The consensus was that Jesus was homoousios: of one substance, or stuff, as the father, and therefore co-eternal with God. Not coincidentally, Constantine himself had suggested this solution to the raging debate. It seems questionable that a bunch of bishops gathered at the Emperor’s palace might come to a theological conclusion that the emperor himself devised. But it gets worse: because Constantine later contradicted this bishop decision. Imagine if our American presidents had the last word on what correct religious belief was today; and could change their minds, based on how the political wind was blowing.

Before I get too carried away with these questions, however, I should circle back around to Helena, who led a captivating life following her son’s rise to power. Constantine’s wealth allowed Helena to be a great patron of the Church in her own right. She is most famous for her work in seeking out relics, and in particular, a trip to Palestine, when she claimed to have found the true cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. During that trip, she also reportedly built or beautified both the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church on the Mount of Olives; as well as building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the place where the cross was found; three of the most important Christian churches in the world. Many other traditions surround Helena, and controversy surrounds her, too; many view the collection of relics, which she popularized, as an idolatrous practice.

There are so many questions to ask about Constantine and Helena, many that cannot be answered. But it is certain that they changed the story of the church forever. And it is amazing to see that only 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the church already looked remarkably similar to the one we know today: geographically and culturally diverse, rife with theological disagreement, and entangled in political power struggles. And yet somehow, the kernel of Good News within it has managed to come this far. God has withstood all the beauty and mess that we have made, for these thousands of years.

God, we thank you for all who have built the church, who have commissioned beauty, who have wielded power, in your name. Forgive them, and forgive us, whenever we falter, and give us the courage to keep seeking out true ways to follow you. Amen.