St Helena (246-330), Protector of the Holy Places

St Helena , is celebrated on 21 May and given the title ‘Protector of the Holy Places’.   She was born in the middle of the third century (246-8) at a place called Drepanum (later re-named Helenopolis) on what is now the Gulf of Edremit in western Turkey.   The picture is a photograph of the east window of the Anglican Chapel in Istanbul dedicated to St Helena.

St Helena gave birth to Constantine on 27 February 270-72 in Naissus[1].  It is not clear whether Helena was lawfully married to Constantius, Constantine’s father.  Helena separated from Constantius and was sent with Constantine to live in the Palace of Emperor Diocletian in Nicomedia, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  In 308 when Constantine became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, he made his mother, Helena, Augusta, that is Empress.  Constantine went on to become the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and founded the city of Constantinople, known now as Istanbul.

Helena is reputed to have become a Christian in 312, and that she fully embraced the Christian life[2]. In 327, Helena visited Jerusalem.  She is reputed to have found the ‘true cross’ and the exact place where Christ was crucified.  Her visit was part of a plan to promote Jerusalem as a centre of pilgrimage.  At that time the city was a backwater of the Roman Empire since its destruction in 66CE.  With Helena’s visit also began a period of imperially funded Church building projects in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.  The Churches of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity and the church on the Mount of Olives were all initiated about this time and continued by Constantine after his mother died in 330 CE.

There is some suggestion by historians that one of the motivations of the pilgrimage and building programme was to showcase the Christian commitment of the Imperial family, particularly in the wake of the murder of Crispus, Constantine’s eldest son and his step-mother Fausta.

The dowager Empress Helena is recorded as showing charity and largess to all the communities that she encountered on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Eusebius (born 260), the Church Historian is a source for stories about Helena and her son Constantine.

Helena and her son, Constantine, are both associated with the cross.  Constantine had a vision of the cross before he went into battle and later Helena is supposed to have found the true cross.

‘Theodoret[3] (died c. 457) recounts what would become the standard version of the finding of the True Cross:

When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord’s sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.

With the Cross were also found the Holy Nails, which Helena took with her back to Constantinople. According to Theodoret, “She had part of the cross of our Saviour conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity.”’

‘The Veneration of the Cross is part of the Good Friday liturgy.  The practice was perhaps introduced by Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386). Egeria, the pilgrim, describes the unveiling (on the morning of Good Friday) of the true cross discovered by St. Helena and the threefold veneration by the devout who touched the cross with their forehead, then their eyes, and then their lips, and also provides a vivid account of the care taken in Jerusalem to prevent worshippers from biting out pieces of the wood of the cross to take away for use as talismans.  Relics of the cross spread throughout Europe; they were known in Rome at the end of the seventh century.’[4]

Helena’s influence came not just from her own personal wealth and personality but was backed by the full power of the state and possibly a mother’s desire to help establish her son’s Christian credentials.

Modern historians are sceptical about the finding of the ‘true cross’.  It could also have been that the site of Christ’s tomb, Golgotha and other places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were common knowledge even in the fourth century when Helena visited Jerusalem.   At that time the symbol for Christians of Christ was the fish – Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ ‘Ichthus’ which spelt out the first letters, in Greek of ‘Jesus Christ, son of God, Saviour’.  This symbol was displaced by the cross after Helena found the supposed ‘true cross’ during her visit to Jerusalem.

The Historian Dairmaid MacCulloch describes the use of the acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthus):   …the usual Christian visual symbol for Christ had been a fish, since the Greek word for ‘fish’, ichthys, could be turned into an acrostic for the initial letters of a Greek phrase, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’, or similar devotional variants. Now the fish was far outclassed not only by the new imperial Chi-Rho monogram referring to the same word, but also by the Cross. Crosses had featured little in public Christian art outside written texts before the time of Constantine; now they could even be found as motifs in jewellery.[5]

Which symbol of Christ, or the Christian faith is meaningful in our current era?  What have we lost as Christians by the displacement of the acrostic ICHTHUS by the cross?

The challenge for women and men of every age is to articulate and live out their faith in Christ in a way that is glorifying to God and a blessing to those that they live amongst.  Christians are called Christians because they bear the name of Christ, and seek to replicate the life of Christ in and through their own lives.

There is no collect in the Anglican prayer book to commemorate the life and example of St Helena.  I suggest that the collect for Holy Cross Day[6] is a suitable prayer for today:

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of live and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

[1] Nis, Serbia

[2] Saints on Earth: A Biographical Companion to Common Worship Location 2226.  Kindle Version.

[3]  Theodoret[3] (died c. 457) Ecclesiastical History Chapter xvii

[4] Pfatteicher, Philip H.. Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year . Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 194-195). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[6] Celebrated on 14 September in the Anglican Liturgical Calendar

4 December – St Barbara of Nicomedia (235)

Saint Barbara[1]

Saint Barbara is celebrated on 4 December.  She is known in Greek as Αγία Βαρβάρα, and in Spanish as Santa Barbara.  She was martyred for her faith on 4 December 235.

Saint Barbara is widely celebrated and considered the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives and also the patron saint of mathematicians.  However, as is the case with the lives of the saints it is not clear how much of her story is based on fact.  For this reason Saint Barbara was removed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis.   But Saint Barbara is still celebrated in the Eastern Church and as recently as 4 December 2018[2] The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener, Istanbul sent Bodrum Metropoliton Alikarnasos Andrianos to Izmit to lead a service to celebrate the life of St Barabara.

It is not clear where Saint Barbara comes from – it is variously suggested that she lived in Phonecian Heliopolis (Baalbek, Lebanon) or Nicomedia, present day Izmit, Turkey.   Her story is included in this collection of Christian women because she is a Christian woman who is celebrated and known about[3].

The extent documentation suggests that Saint Barbara was brought up by her father Dioscorus after her mother died.  Dioscorus wanted to protect his daughter so he locked her in a high tower[4].  Only her father and her pagan teachers came to visit her.  Barbara spent a lot of time looking out of the tower on the surrounding hills and admiring God’s creation.  She doubted that the beautiful world she saw was created by the pagan gods that her father and her teachers worshipped and believed in.  Eventually Dioscorus allowed Barbara to leave her tower, he hoped that having some freedom would change her and that she would agree to marry one of the suitors he had found for her.  She used her new found freedom to meet with Christians and become a Christian.

Her father,Dioscorus, had a bath house built for Barbara.  The original architectural plans was for 2 windows but when her father was absent Barbara had the plans altered and asked the builders to put in three windows so that there would be a Trinity of light in the bath house.  When Dioscorus returned from his travels Barbara told him that she had become a Christian.  Full of rage he grabbed his sword ready to kill her, but she ran off.  Dioscorus followed her but was prevented from reaching her when a hill blocked his way.

The hill opened up and Barbara was hidden in a crevice.  Her father asked two local shepherds if they had seen his daughter.  The first denied he had seen her but the second betrayed her hiding place.

Dioscorus beat his daughter, locked her up, starved her then handed her over to Martianus, the prefect of the city.  Despite continued ill treatment by both Dioscorus and Martianus Barbara stood firm in her faith.  She was joined by another woman, Juliana.  They were both subject to various tortures and Barbara was condemned to death by beheading by her father.

Barbara was beheaded on 4 December.  Legend has it that both Dioscorus and Martianus, the prefect, were then struck dead by lightning.

In the 6th century relics of St Barbara were taken to Constantinople.  Six hundred years later, they were taken to Kiev  by the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenos[5] where they remain.

The Order of Saint Barbara is an honorary society within the United States Army Field Artillery Associated and the United States Army Air Defense Artillery Association.

Cities such as Santa Barbara, California are named after this saint.  There are in total 45 cities that are named after Saint Barbara of Nicomedia[6].

The service to celebrate Saint Barbara’s life was held in an ancient building in İzmit Şehitler Korusu[7].  This place is associated with Saint Barbara maybe where she was imprisoned before her martyrdom.

Izmit was known in ancient times as Nicomedia[8].  There has been a settlement in the Izmit area since 1200-800 BC.  The city took the name of Nicomedia during the reign of King Nicomedes (279-250BC).  During the reign of King Nicomedes III (94-74BC) the province of Bithynia became part of the Roman Empire.  Nicomedia was the major city in the province of Bithynia.  Bithynia is immortalised in the writings of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113) who was governor of Bithynia and died in Birthynia.

During Emperor Diocletian’s reign (284-305) Nicomedia became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Because the Roman Empire had become so large Diocletian introduced the Tetrachy system of ruling with two Agustus and two Ceasars.  Emperor Diocletian and Caesar Galerius ruled the East from Nicomedia while Emperor Maximian and Caesar Constantius ruled the west.  After 284 Diocletian rebuilt Nicomedia as his new capital.   During this time a hippodrome, palace, temple, bathhouse, mint, a shipyard and various official buildings were built.  Nicomedia became the fourth city in the Roman Empire after Rome, Antioch (Antakya) and Alexandria.

Saint Barbara is portrayed as determined woman who while imprisoned in the tower had begun to question pagan belief because of her observations of natural beauty that she was able to observe from the tower within which her father imprisoned her.  We don’t know for sure whether St Barbara was locked up in a tower.  But Jungian psychologists believe that being locked in a tower can symbolise living too much in one’s head and not being grounded in everyday reality.  The person who is locked in the tower is set free through love, through learning to feel, to be in touch with their feelings (some would see this as exercising the right brain function rather than the more cerebral left brain functions).  Being let out of the tower can also symbolize the Jungian process of individuation[9].

The story seems to suggest that St Barbara exercised her personal choice by becoming a Christian, by symbolising her new found faith with three windows in her bath house.  Three windows, representing the Christian concept of a Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  She suffered greatly for her choices and ended life as a martyr beheaded[10] by her own father.




[3] DS one of my former students attended a service in Izmit on 4 December 2015 and told me about her experience.  It is that account that has led me to research and add Saint Barbara’s story to this collection.

[4] Locking up in a tower to protect a daughter is also known about in Istanbul.  In that case the daughter was locked up in Leander’s tower, a well known landmark in the Bosphorus between Uskudar and Sirkeci.

[5] Also known as Komnene.  Barbara, daughter of Isaac (or Alexius) Comnenos and Irene of Alnia was born in about 1070.

[6] Present day Izmit.

[7] Martyr’s Park, Izmit.


[9] To develop the ability to act independently, to be an individual rather than controlled by another.

[10] Losing one’s head is not always a bad thing, if one is too much of a thinking type! The beheading may also be a symbol of that. 

Copyright©2019 Rev Ros Wilkinson