Helena came on a pilgrimage to the holy places. For the Holy Ghost had inspired her to seek the wood of the Cross. Wherefore she came to Golgotha; and there she spake within herself on this wise: ‘Behold the battlefield! Where is the sign of victory? I seek the Standard of Salvation. Am I upon a throne and the Lord’s Cross in the dust? Am I in kingly halls and Christ’s triumph in ruins? There it must needs be lying hid, and therefore in this place there lieth hid the palm of life eternal.’
So spoke St. Ambrose in a sermon in praise of St. Helena. He was speaking of this woman who, through her perseverance and faith, discovered the True Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ and who built the churches which to this day adorn the holy places of His Passion and of His birth.
There are several strands of tradition regarding St. Helena’s birth, around the year 255. Some say that she was a princess, the daughter of the King of Brittany; others that she was possibly an inn-keeper’s daughter, born in Bithynia. Whatever the truth of her origins, the fact remains that, while still a very yong woman, she married a Roman officer, the General Constantius Chlorus, and they had a son, Constantine, who was born in 274. Constantius became the Emperor in 292 and divorced Helena for a more politically favorable marriage to the step-daughter of the Emperor Maximian. Even though she was abandoned by her husband, Helena was still honored by her son, Constantine, and when he succeeded as Emperor in 306, she was given proper recognition and respect and called Empress.
Christians had suffered through many persecutions in the preceding centuries, but the faith had continued to spread throughout the Empire. Helena herself – perhaps secretly at first – declared herself to be a Christian (practicing her faith particularly by helping the poor and prisoners) and her influence began to be felt by her son. The famous story of Constantine’s vision of the Cross before a decisive battle against Maxentius led to his issuing of the Edict of Milan in 313, making the practice of Christianity legal. Again, the words St. Ambrose attributed to St. Helena: ‘Mary in her holiness bore the Lord, I will search out his Cross! She carried him when he was born; I will carry him now that he is risen from the dead! She caused God to be seen among men; I will raise up his Standard from these ruins for the healing of sinners.’
When she was more than 60 years old, St. Helena was able to realize her long-held dream of visiting the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of Our Lord. Her desire was to see the places where he had been born, where he taught, and where he was crucified and rose from the dead. While there, she determined to search for the Cross itself, if it could still be found. Since former emperors had built pagan temples over the holy sites, the local Christians knew where these places were. They guided St. Helena in her search and eventually three discarded crosses were found. The story of how a healing took place, revealing which was Jesus’ Cross, has been told for 1700 years. Some of the wood of this Cross was sent by St. Helena to Constantinople (the city which her son had made the Empire’s capital) and to Rome. She paid for the construction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Emperor Constantine was eventually baptized into the Church and, through the continuing influence of his mother, made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. When the Arian heresy threatened the stability of the church and the Empire, he called for the first Council to be held in Nicaea in 325. In St. Ambrose’s words: Wisely hath Helena done in setting the Cross above kings’ heads, that on kings, Christ’s Cross may be adored. For to bow down to the holy sign of Redemption is not a novelty but an act of godliness. God therefore is the nail of the Roman Empire which ruleth the whole globe, and clotheth the brows of princes, that they who once were persecutors may now be preachers.
Her pilgrimage ended and her quest satisfied, St. Helena fell asleep in the Lord in Rome around the year 330. By her discovery of the True Cross and the building of the shrines she had made a lasting visible focus for Christians; and by her influence on her son, she had made it possible for Christianity to thrive and spread to all the world. We give thanks to Almighty God for the witness of his saints, especially that of the Empress, St. Helena.