Friday, October 11, 2013
Born in mid-3rd century in the Middle East, St. Helen lived to a ripe old age as Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. A daughter of humble inn-keepers, Helena married Roman general, Constantius, who later divorced her upon becoming junior emperor to marry--for political expediency--the stepdaughter of his patron, co-emperor Maximianus. Remaining loyal, her only child, Constantine, succeeded his father’s throne upon his death. When he defeated his rivals becoming sole ruler, Constantine summoned Helena to the imperial court, bestowing on her the title “Empress.” Furthermore, he honored his mother by ordering coins made with her name and portrait.
Influenced by Constantine, Empress Helena converted to Christianity becoming even more devout than those born and raised as Christians. Known for her charitable acts, she gave generously to whole towns, not just individuals, especially the needy. Her generosity and zeal in building churches and visiting shrines encouraged the wider spread of Christianity. In her late 70’s, Empress Helena made a pilgrimage to Palestine. In a dream, she saw the Cross of Christ buried under a pagan temple. She had it demolished, the ground dug out. Helena found fragments of the Cross, recognizable for its inscription between 2 plain ones. She sent the nails to Constantine who put one in his crown, another in his horse’s bridle, making the prophecy of Zechariah come true (14.20). In that day there shall be upon the bells of the horses, “Holy Unto The Lord.”
St. Helen lived so long ago, legend and fact have intertwined. Legend credits her for building churches in Rome and other places and decorating them lavishly. The fact remains, as Palestine’s Bishop Eusebius asserted, she did build a church near the Grotto of Nativity in Bethlehem, another on the Mount of the Ascension near Jerusalem and embellished the Grotto.
Already past 80, Helen returned to her native land which Constantine, then residing in the East, had improved renaming it, Helenapolis. Constantine was at her deathbed in 330, the last year known to have coins with her image. Her body was transported to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) to the imperial vault of the church of the Church of the Apostles. Today, the sarcophagus of St. Helen lies in the Vatican Museum.
St. Helen was venerated as a saint as early as the 9th century, devotees reaching even western countries. Her religious pictures show her holding a cross. August 18 is her feast day.
Let us reflect on St. Helen’s journey to sainthood. Isn’t it impressive that she used the massive wealth at her disposal in church-building and uplifting the lives of the needy? She could have wallowed in a luxurious lifestyle befitting a Roman empress had she been self-indulgent. Hadn’t she the pick of the finest jewelry to bedeck herself? Couldn’t she have caroused in endless banquets and merry-making with the high and mighty? Instead, she used the resources of the empire to decorate the churches she built and devoted her time to visiting shrines and holy places.