Great Feast of Saint Helen
On May 21st we have a great feast coming up. May 21st is the day the orthodoxy celebrates the memory of equal to Apostles Constantine the Great and his mother St Helen.
The story starts at Drepanum in the province of Bithynia of Asia Minor where on 248 A.D. St Helen was born. She was the daughter of an innkeeper, a girl of humble origin yet very beautiful and well known for her intelligence and virtues. She married her husband Constantius Chlorus I on 270 A.D. whom she allegedly met in that inn. It is said that when they met they were both wearing identical silver bracelets and that was taken from Constantius as a sign from God that he found his soul mate. Constantius was then serving as an army officer under Emperor Aurelian and St Helen followed him through his military expeditions and four years later she gave birth to their son Constantine I who was about to be the first Emperor of Byzantium. Nevertheless, Constantios divorced her around 289 because of her humble ancestry and married Maximian’s stepdaughter Theodora. Helen and her son were dispatched to the court of Diocletian where Constantine became a member of the inner circle. She never remarried but she stayed close to her son who had great respect and profound love for her.
When Constantine was declared Augustus of the Roman Empire in 306 by his father’s troops – after the latter had died – Helen came back to the public life in the imperial court. Constantine appointed his mother the title of Augusta Imperatrix and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury. She used that to help poor families; she released many prisoners and was merged with the ordinary worshippers in modest attire.
She had a life full of charities and care for the weak; you might say she was some sort of social welfare of that time. She founded orphanages; retire homes and many churches and monasteries. However her greater achievement is considered to be the discovery of the True Cross.
Her quest began when she was in her early 60’s. Upon her arrival she called all the Jewish Rabbis to meet her. She demanded to know where the True Cross was but none of them told her because this revelation would be the end of their supremacy. When the empress ordered their burial, in great fear they delivered up a man named Judas who led her to the spot where the Cross was buried after she had threatened him with starvation. When they arrived at the spot, as an answer to Helen’s prayers, a small earthquake shook the place and perfume filled the air. That converted Judas and he started digging with all of his powers. He eventually found three crosses which he brought to Helen. The legend has it that the authenticity of the cross was tested either by bringing a dead man back to life either by healing a woman; according to others along with the crosses was the inscription of Pilate.
After that St Helen built churches in Bethlehem, Egypt, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Calvary.
She died in Palestine during these activities and was buried in a mausoleum attached to the basilicas of Sts Marcellinus and Peter. Her sarcophagus is now at the Vatican.