(Image source) On this day, 21st May, those of the Orthodox faith remember Saints Constantine and Helena, and those bearing their names celebrate their feast day.
I realised with a certain amount of shame this evening that I didn't know much about either of them, except that Constantine (Constantin) was an emperor of major historical importance (hence, Constantinople) and Helena (Elena/Ileana) was his mother. Time to rectify that.
Saint Helena was indeed the mother of St Constantine the Great, and probably born at Drepanum (her son later changed the name to Helenopolis) in Asia Minor to parents of humble origins. She either married or was the concubine of Constantius Chlorus, bearing their son Flavius Valerius Constantinus in 274. It is said that on their first meeting, they were wearing identical silver bracelets - Constantius saw her as his soulmate sent by God. However, he left her in 289 to further his political ambition, marrying a woman of noble rank, Theodora, Maximian's daughter and had six children with her. Helena and her son were dispatched to the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, where Constantine grew to be a member of the inner circle. Helena never remarried and lived for a time in obscurity, though close to her only son, who had a deep regard and affection for her.
Constantius Chlorus was Roman emperor from 293-306 and declared "Augustus" in 305. He died suddenly in Eburacum (York, Britain), and as he was dying, recommended his son, Constantine, to the army as his successor. Consequently Constantine the younger was declared emperor by the legions at York.
He granted his mother the honour of the imperial title "Augusta."
(Image source) Constantine the Great is perhaps best known for being the first Christian Roman emperor; his reign was certainly a turning point for the Church. Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted his mother's Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. In any case, when he became the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire, he issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which guaranteed religious tolerance for Christians, perhaps influenced by St Helena. In 323, when he became the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire, he extended the provisions of the Edict of Milan to the Eastern half of the Empire. With three hundred years of persecution behind them, Christians could finally practice their faith in peace. The Edict of Milan included several clauses which stated that all confiscated churches would be returned as well as other provisions to previously persecuted Christians. Constantine also made new laws regarding the Jews, forbidding them to own Christian slaves or to circumcise them.
A great general of his time, Constantine defeated the emperors Maxentius and Licinius during civil wars. He also fought successfully against the Franks, Alamanni, Visigoths, and Sarmatians during his reign - even resettling parts of Dacia which had been abandoned during the previous century. Constantine built a new imperial residence in place of Byzantium, naming it New Rome. In Constantine's honour, people referred to it as Constantinople, which would later be the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for over a thousand years. He is thus considered the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire. For more fascinating historical info on the politics of the time, the high jinx and the failed efforts to assassinate Constantine by his enemies, see HERE.
Just as a parenthesis, Constantine's rule marked a clear break of Christianity from Judaic traditions. From then on, the Roman Julian Calendar, a solar calendar, was given precedence over the lunar Hebrew Calendar among Christian churches of the Roman Empire.
This site describes how Constantine deeply revered the victory-bearing sign of the Cross, and wanted to find the 'True Cross' upon which Christ was crucified. He sent his mother, the Holy Empress Helena, to Palestine, granting her access to both money and power. Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem and St Helena began their quest, finally unearthing the Cross in 326. An account of the discovery can be read HERE. The Orthodox Church commemorates the Uncovering of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Holy Empress Helena on March 6th. St Helena gave the Cross to the Patriarch for safe-keeping, and took part of it back with her for the emperor along with the nails, in order to use their miraculous power to aid her son. She allegedly had one placed in Constantine's helmet, and another in the bridle of his horse.
(Image source - Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem)
On the site of the discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and churches were also built on other sites chosen by Helena.
She was equally responsible for the construction of two particular churches, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and the Church on the Mount of Olives - sites of Christ's birth and ascension. Local legend attributes to Helena's orders the construction of a church in Egypt to identify the Burning Bush of Sinai. The chapel at St. Catherine's Monastery - often referred to as the Chapel of Saint Helen - dates back to AD330.
Because of her great services to the Church and her efforts in finding the Cross, the empress Helena is known as "the Equal of the Apostles."
A little legend (also from Wiki), just because I like it (and like her even more in consequence!): according to Byzantine tradition, Helena is responsible for the large population of cats in Cyprus. Local tradition holds that she imported hundreds of cats from either Egypt or Palestine in the 4th century AD to rid a monastery of snakes. The monastery is known today as "St. Nicholas of the Cats" (Greek Άγιος Νικόλαος των Γατών) and is located near Limassol. :)
She died in 330 with her son at her side and was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, outside Rome. Her sarcophagus is on display in the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum, although the connection is often questioned. Next to her is the sarcophagus of her grand-daughter Saint Constantina (Saint Constance).
'Helena's saintliness has never been questioned despite her active participation in the murderous affairs of Crispus and Fausta. Sometime between 15 May and 17 June 326, Constantine had his eldest son Crispus seized and put to death by "cold poison" at Pola (Croatia). In July, Constantine had his wife, the Empress Fausta, killed at the behest of his mother. Fausta was left to die in an overheated bath. Their names were wiped from the face of many inscriptions, references to their lives in the literary record were erased, and the memory of both was condemned.' (Wiki)
Constantine fell ill shortly after Easter in 337. He summoned his bishops, and told them he wanted to be baptised in the River Jordan, as Christ had been. He requested the baptism immediately, promising to live a more Christian life should he survive his illness. The bishops "performed the sacred ceremonies according to custom". Constantine died soon afterwards at a suburban villa called Achyron, on the last day of the fifty-day festival of Pentecost directly following Easter, on 22 May 337. His body was taken to Constantinople and buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. (Wiki)
So now you know.
"La Multi Ani" fericiti tuturor celor ce poarta numele sfintilor Constantin si Elena!