Saint Helen of Constantinople was born in the 3rd century Roman Empire from humble origins, but eventually became Empress, as mother of Saint and Emperor Constantine the Great. Saint Constantine was the first Christian emperor of Rome, and with his rule the Roman Empire would embrace the Christian faith. Saint Helen is known also for traveling to Jerusalem and finding the true cross where Christ was crucified.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate SaintHelen of Constantinople, mother of Saint Constantine the Great, and discoverer of the true cross.
Saint Helen was Empress of the Roman Empire. She was born in Bithynia, a province in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman empire that today is in northern Turkey. Her son, Constantine rose to become the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, who established Christianity as an official religion of the empire, ending many centuries of persecutions against the Christian faith.
Let us read a short account of her early life written by the British historian A.R. Birley:
Helen, later known as Flavia Julia Helena Augusta, mother of Constantine the Great, was
credited after her death with having discovered the fragments of the Cross and the tomb in which
Jesus was buried at Golgotha.
Helen was born at Drepanum in Bithynia, later renamed after her Helenpolis, about the
year 250. Of humble origin, Helen was employed as a stabularia, which might be rendered as
‘barmaid’ or the like. She became the wife or perhaps the concubine of a soldier of Balkan origin
named Flavius Constantius, to whom she bore one child, a son named Constantine, on February
27, probably in the year 272, at Naissus (Nis). Constantius became an officer and then governor
of Dalmatia, before being appointed Praetorian Prefect by the emperor Maximian in about A.D.
289. On 1 March 293 Constantius was raised to the rank of Caesar, i.e. deputy emperor, and was
obliged to divorce or set aside Helen in order to marry Maximian’s daughter Theodora.
Thereafter Helen disappears from view for many years. She reappears after Constantine had
become emperor in the west and had taken control of Rome. There she was presented with the
Sessorium, an imperial palace outside the city walls. She devoted some attention to this building,
having its baths restored on a lavish scale and giving it a new water-supply with its own
aqueduct, subsequently named Aqua Augustea. Constantine’s biographer, bishop Eusebius of
Caesarea, reports that she was converted to Christianity by her son. She received the title ‘Most
Noble Lady’ (nobilissima femina) at latest in A.D. 318 and coins with her name and this title, and
her portrait, were struck in modest quantities. Shortly after Constantine gained control of the
whole empire in A.D. 324, Helen, together with Constantine’s wife Fausta, were raised to the
rank of Augusta.
Saint Helen is also known for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, on a quest to find the true cross where Jesus Christ was crucified. She succeeds, after receiving a miracle that enables her to identify which is the correct one.Let us read an account of St Helen’s finding of the cross from the Rev Alban Butler’s life of the saints:
She embraced Christianity late in life; but her incomparable faith and piety greatly influenced her son Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and served to kindle a holy zeal in the
hearts of the Roman people. Forgetful of her high dignity, she delighted to assist at the Divine Office amid the poor; and by her alms-deeds showed herself a mother to the indigent and distressed. In her eightieth year she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with the ardent desire of discovering the cross on which our blessed Redeemer suffered. After many labors, three crosses were found on Mount Calvary, together with the nails and the inscription recorded by the Evangelists. It still remained to identify the true cross of Our Lord. By the advice of the bishop, Macarius, the three were applied successively to a woman afflicted with an incurable disease, and no sooner had the third touched her than she arose, perfectly healed. The pious empress, transported with joy, built a, most glorious church on Mount Calvary to receive the precious relic, sending portions of it to Rome and Constantinople, where they were solemnly exposed to the adoration of the faithful. In the year 312 Constantine found himself attacked by Maxentius with vastly superior forces, and the very existence of his empire threatened. In this crisis he bethought him of the crucified Christian God Whom his mother Helena worshipped, and kneeling down, prayed God to reveal Himself and give him the victory. Suddenly, at noonday, a cross of fire was seen by his army in the calm and cloudless sky, and beneath it the words, In hoc signo vinces—"Through this sign thou shalt conquer." By divine command, Constantine made a standard like the cross he had seen, which was borne at the head of his troops; and under this Christian ensign they marched against the enemy, and obtained a complete victory. Shortly after, Helena herself returned to Rome, where she expired, 328.
Saint Helen is often celebrated together with her son, Saint Constantine, her motherhood and influence on her son playing a large role in the history of the church and of the Roman Empire. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox calendar, Saints Constantine and Helen are celebrated together on 21 May.Many stories of the saints speak of the important role of a pious mother, and in this way Godly women were able to exert a lot of influence, even in times when society was very patriarchal. This sermon by the Greek Archbishop Elpidophoros of America speaks of the mother-son relationship between Saints Helen and Constantine, and compares her with the Virgin Mary. This Sermon was on the feast day of Saints Constantine and Helen in 2021, at Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in New York.
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America
Homily for the Liturgy of Saints Constantine & Helen
Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church
Jackson Heights, New York
May 21, 2021
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Χριστὸς Ἀνέστη! [and in response: Ἀληθῶς Ἀνέστη!]
Christ is Risen! [and in response: Truly He is Risen!]
Today, we celebrate a mother and her son – an image and a true icon of the Panagia and our Lord. Today, we celebrate how the love of a mother shaped the son she bore, and turned his life from the kingdoms of this world to the Kingdom of God. Today, we celebrate how faith transformed an empire, from the oppressor of truth to its ultimate witness.
Today, we celebrate the Equals-to-the-Apostles, Constantine and Helen! Your celestial patrons are the most marvelous exemplars of how faith can bend history to the arc of righteousness.
It is a fact that it was Saint Helen’s commitment to the Gospel that prepared her son, the Great Constantine, for his role in history. Like the Holy Virgin Mary, who was never truly the “wife” of Joseph (she was only his betrothed), Saint Helen was never the wife of Constantine’s father, the Caesar, Constantius.
Constantius was one of the four who ruled the Roman Empire in the system known as the “Tetrachy,” which consisted of two Emperors – each called an “Augustus,” with one in West and one in the East, and two junior Emperors, each called a “Caesar.” In the days of Constantine’s father’s power, the most mighty Augustus was Diocletian, who was a great persecutor of Christians. Under the reign of Diocletian, Great Martyrs like Saint Demetrios the Myrrh-streamer and Saint George the Trophy-bearer gave their final witness to our Lord Jesus Christ. You can imagine how difficult it was to be a Christian in the upper echelons of the Empire, much less to be the son of one of the Four Tetrarchs.
Yet, the young Constantine was much more the son of his mother than of his father. An attentive and loving mother is always a powerful influence in the life of any child. Saint Helen bravely lived and confessed her Christian Faith openly, and gave an example of real courage to her son – the future “one and only” Emperor of Rome, both of the West and of the East. For it was her son who would establish the New Rome, the City of Constantine, or Constantinople as we know it, at the ancient Greek town of Byzantion – flanked by the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn.
Therefore, we should never underestimate the power of our mothers; just as we should never underestimate the role of our Panagia with Her Only-Begotten Son. The prayers of our mothers and grandmothers are strong and steady, and by their intercessions, many children are saved. For the Christian, every day is “Mother’s Day,” because we always have the Theotokos.
And surrounding the Theotokos are Saints like the Holy Helen. She strengthened her son to become an earthly ruler, and to imitate the Παντοκράτωρ of all – our God Who reigns in Heaven.
Long before Saint Constantine convened the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, which gave to us the Symbol of our Faith – the Creed that we recite every Sunday – he used his military victories to put an end to Christian persecution throughout the Empire.
From the City of Milan, in modern Italy, Saint Constantine issued the famous “Edict of Milan,” which legalized Christianity throughout the Empire and ended the persecutions. He did this just months after his decisive victory at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, where he overcame all opponents by the fiery words he saw in the night sky: Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα!
This was nothing less than a miraculous turnaround for the Church – one that was just as much unexpected as it was welcome. And it was due to these two Saints – both mother and son – whom we celebrate today.
Therefore, my beloved in the Lord:
Let us praise their names – Constantine and Helen – and give thanks to Almighty God that He inspired them to perform wondrous acts for the Church, from which we continue to benefit today – seventeen hundred years later!
By their holy intercessions, may we all be saved, and may our Mother Church of Constantinople ever thrive and succeed in Her Ecumenical mission of love, leadership and the sanctification of the world.
Χριστὸς Ἀνέστη! [Ἀληθῶς Ἀνέστη!]
I would like to share another Homily, funnily enough also from a church named St Helen located in New York. This Homily is by Father Thomas Derivan of the St Helena Catholic church in the Bronx. He reflects on the difficulties that Saint Helen had to endure, and indeed she had to endure many. She was born from a humble background, had to endure abandonment by her husband, see her son struggle in a war. Even her quest to find the true cross was arduous and diffiult. Her example reminds us to persevere in what God calls us to do, even when times are difficult. Let us here from Father Thomas Derivan:
A Reflection on St. Helena
Every parish has a special feast day. Our Parish Feastday is celebrated on September 14, the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. On this feast day, Christians throughout the world honor the Cross of Jesus, the Cross on which He died for our salvation. But on this feast day, we here, the people of this parish, honor also the one who found the Cross on the hill of Calvary, our holy patroness, St. Helena. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, went with her son’s soldiers to Jerusalem. Her mission—to find the buried Cross of Christ, the Cross that had been buried on the hill of Calvary for three hundred years. Helena’s soldiers dug on the hill and they found three crosses, one belonging to Jesus, the other to the two thieves, but each unmarked. Helena put her trust in the Lord to give her a sign. There was a crippled woman there and Helena touched each of the crosses to the woman. When she touched the True Cross of Jesus, the woman was cured. We are blessed to have a relic or piece of that Holy Cross in our church, in the reliquary over the statue of St. Helena. It was given to our founding pastor, our beloved Monsignor Arthur j. Scanlan, by then Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman when our parish was established in 1940.
What a beautiful feast day we have! This feast celebrates the Cross and it celebrates St. Helena, finder of the Cross. It celebrates St. Helena’s faith, her determination, her trust in God. She was an old woman in her eighties when she took upon herself her mission to find the True Cross. This old woman defied the world with the youthfulness of her love of Christ.
The great British writer Evelyn Waugh wrote about our patroness and mentions many things about St. Helena, but I draw your attention to these special words, “What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God, that He wants a different thing from each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were each created.”
Those words deserve our careful reflection. St. Helena did not have a charmed life. Her life was filled with turmoil, rejection, and pain. St. Helena experienced heartache in her marriage. She was married to a Roman general Constantius Chlorus and loved him and their son Constantine dearly. But then she was divorced by her husband so that he could marry a princess to further his political ambitions. Yet St. Helena persevered, both in her devotion to her son Constantine and to her faith in the Lord Jesus. And the Lord gave her a task to accomplish. To paraphrase Evelyn Waugh’s words, it was “something which only she could do and for which she was created,” namely finding the Cross of Jesus on the hill of Calvary. If Helena had given up, if she had given in to her troubles, then she would not have accomplished the task for which she was created. Simply put, God needed St. Helena to disclose His Cross to the world. How marvelous that the Lord needed this 80-year old woman to reveal the Cross of our salvation!
The lesson for us is clear: we too must accept the trials of our lives, knowing that somehow God will accomplish His plan through us. All we have to do is put our lives in His hands, whatever problems we are facing, and let Him do the rest. May we all learn that lesson from our patron saint on this parish feast day. May St. Helena, who found the Cross of Jesus, help us on our journey of life, to find our purpose on earth and then one day to find our path to heaven.
“St. Helena, finder of the Cross, pray for us.”
Father Thomas B. Derivan
There are many different days in the church calendar when Saint Helen, and her finding of the true cross are celebrated.
Saint Helen is celebrated on Aug 18 in the Roman Catholic church, and the Eastern Orthodox celebrate her together with Constantine on May 21. The Anglicans also celebrate Saint Helen on May 21.
There are also separate feast days for the finding of the cross. For the Eastern Orthodox, this is celebrated on March 6. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans also celebrate the feast of the exaltation of the Cross on Sep 14, which is one of the 12 main feast days of the church, which partially commemorates St Helen’s finding of the cross too.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider giving us a rating on Itunes or whatever podcast app you use, so more people can find the Christian Saints Podcast
Holy and blessed Saint Helen,
With the anguish and devotion with which
You sought the Cross of Christ,
I plead that You give me God’s grace
To suffer in patience and labours of this life,
So that through them and
through Your intercession and protection,
I will be able to seek and carry the Cross,
Which God has placed upon me,
So that I can serve Him in this life
and enjoy His Glory ever after.