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