On May 21, the Orthodox Church celebrates a mother and a son who are Equal to the Apostles. These two great saints are none other than Sts. Constantine and Helen. Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus was Emperor of the westernmost parts of the Roman Empire. Upon his death, Constantine succeeded his throne. Out of great respect and honor for his mother, he gave her the imperial title, “Augusta.”
In the year 312 AD, the corulers of the Empire, Maximian and Maxentius joined forces against Constantine. He confronted Maxentius and his army at the Milvian Bridge. This was a major route that led into Rome over the Tiber River. One day, Constantine gazed up at the sky and below the Sun he saw a large radiant Cross. Under the Cross there was an inscription: In this Sign Conquer ( Έν Τούτω Νίκα) Constantine gazed unto the sky with a sense of awe and faith.. The following night the Lord appeared to him in a dream and revealed to him the power of the Cross and its significance. The next morning, Constantine ordered that a labarum in the form of a cross be made and on it to have the inscription, the Name of Jesus Christ. On October 28, Constantine defeated Maxentius, drowning him in the Tiber River. He then became sole ruler of the West.
In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which guaranteed religious tolerance of Christians in the western part of the Roman Empire. Several years later, in 324 AD, Constantine defeated his brother-in-law Licinius who ruled in the East; becoming sole Emperor of the entire Empire. He extended the Edict of Milan to include the eastern parts also. Now Christianity was legalized throughout the Empire. This was indeed a watershed event in the history of the Roman Empire and for the rise of Christianity. With the legalization of Christianity, persecutions would dramatically decrease.
Constantine decided to move the capital from Rome to the East in the City of Byzantium. Rome was too much associated with paganism, so he wanted the new capital to be the center of Christianity. He named it after himself, Constantinople; thus, the New Rome. Guided by an Angel of the Lord, Constantine traced the boundaries of the new City with his spear. With the establishment of a new capital in Byzantium, Christianity would become the new religion of the Empire. He sent his mother, Helen to Jerusalem in search of the Holy Cross. After an extensive search and excavation, she found the Precious and Life-Giving Cross under a hill of rubble. She had all the pagan temples and monuments destroyed. Constantine helped his mother build the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which stood over the Tomb of Christ. Helen also went on to build churches over other significant parts of the Holy Land, such as the Mount of Olives and Bethlehem. These were significant places in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, during Constantine’s reign, the Church was plagued by heresies, especially the Arian heresy. This false belief claimed Jesus was not divine but rather a mere creature. Under Constantine’s initiative, the First Ecumenical Council was held in Nicaea, 325 AD. The Emperor Constantine was present at the sessions of the Council. The erroneous teachings of Arius were condemned as heresy and the first part of the Creed was established. The formula in determining the date of Pascha every year was also established. However, it would take another Ecumenical Council to finally eradicate Arianism. Nevertheless, it was Constantine who set the precedence for future emperors to convene and preside at Ecumenical Councils.
Although becoming a staunch believer, it was not until his deathbed that Constantine accepted baptism in the year 337 AD. He was indeed the first Christian Emperor and ushered in the Byzantine Empire which lasted a millennium. The Empire did unfortunately crumble, falling to the hands of the Ottomans. Yet, after 400 years, a labarum bearing an image of the Cross would once again be raised. Metropolitan Germanos, the “new” Constantine was the one who raised the labarum and led the revolution. To this day, the national flag of Greece still bears an image of the Cross. Greece is the only country in the world where Eastern Orthodoxy is recognized as a state religion. Indeed, a “remnant” of a once flourishing and vast empire.
Constantine and his mother Helen were given the title of Equal to the Apostles for their missionary work. Moreover, both mother and son revered the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. It was for this reason that he sent Helen in search of the Cross. It was by the Cross that Constantine was triumphant, defeating the enemies of Christianity. Lord, save Your people and bless Your inheritance, granting our rulers to prevail over adversaries, and protecting Your commonwealth by Your Cross. This is the dismissal hymn we chant on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Cross, Its vision and victory is our invincible weapon against evil. God provides for His faithful and just as He led Constantine to victory at the Milvian Bridge, He will likewise deliver us through this horrific pandemic. Let us seek the intercessions of both St Constantine and St Helen before the Lord our God.
As a flash of lightning, as a comet from the Far West, your course was diverted from unbelief to faith in the true God, and you were led to sanctify your people and your City. And you saw the sign of the Cross in the sky, and from there you heard, "Hereby conquer your enemies." Thus when you received the knowledge of the Spirit, and with oil were anointed as Priest and King, you reinforced the Church of Christ our God, O father of Orthodox Emperors. Your coffin pours out healings. Constantine, the peer of the Apostles, earnestly intercede on behalf of our souls. (Festal Doxastikon from Vespers)
Christ is Risen!
A Blessed Feast to all!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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