Today the church remembers a saint who went on a search for lore and said she found what she was looking for: Saint Helena, Mother of Emperor Constantine and Seeker of Relics.
Saint Helena’s childhood is a bit of a mystery. She was probably born in the Roman empire to a poorer family, though this is unconfirmed. She somehow found herself wedded to power, however, in the form of Constantius Chlorus who would become co-regent of the Western portion of the Roman empire. They had a son in the late part of the 3rd Century and named him Constantine.
Not one to pass up a political power play, Constantius divorced Helena and married Theodora, the step-daughter of the then Emperor (Maximinianus Herculius), making him next in line.
Constantius died in 308, and Constantine took the throne. As he ascended those steps, he brought his dear mother along with him, making her one of the “in crowd” again. Constantine ordered the empire to revere his mother as much, if not more, than he himself did, and under his influence Helena slowly converted to Christianity.
Now that she was the Empress of the land once again (Augusta Imperatrix was her official title), a newly revitalized Saint Helena undertook Indiana Jones-like quests to explore the life of Jesus on foot. Constantine charged her with finding any relics that she could relating back to the life of Jesus.
In her search for relics, Saint Helena built churches on the “sites” where she believed Jesus did important things like, oh, get birthed and ascend into heaven. These churches are still there in Jerusalem, including the one on Golgotha. Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Venus on the site, and Saint Helena ordered it to be demolished. Lore has it that in the excavation they found three crosses, the middle being the cross of Christ.
Saint Helena supposedly recovered the nails used in the crucifixion, parts of the rope that bound Jesus, parts of his tunic, and parts of what is called “the true cross.” She took these back to Rome with her, and you can see all of these supposed relics still, the pieces of the cross being held at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
Now, of course, this is all very fantastical, right? Truly is unbelievable…and yet some do.
One of the issues is that the search for the historical Jesus will always come up lacking. No amount of splinters or threads of yarn can patch together what is actually being sought in that journey: verification.
Faith can’t be verified.
One of the gifts that Saint Helena did do was provide the world with beautiful things. The churches she started at these “holy sites” are truly remarkable, even if they may built on wishes and hopes.
Sometimes that’s all we have.
Saint Helena is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that even though we seek out verification regarding the matters of the faith, we won’t find them. But, seek we still do, and as we do it I hope we make some beautiful things along the way…
-historical bits from public sources
-icon is traditional Russian style