The Church calls St Constantine (306-337) “the Equal of the Apostles,” and historians call him “the Great.” He was the son of the Caesar Constantius Chlorus (305-306), who governed the lands of Gaul and Britain. His mother St Helen was a Christian of humble birth. At that time the immense Roman Empire was divided into Western and Eastern halves, governed by two independent emperors and their co-rulers called “Caesars.” Constantius Chlorus was Caesar in the Western Roman Empire.
St. Constantine, the only son of Constantius Chlorus and Queen Helen, was born in 274, and although officially he grew up a pagan, he was raised at home in Christian atmosphere. His father did not persecute Christians in the lands he governed. This was at a time when Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire by the emperors Diocletian (284-305) and his co-rulers Maximian Galerius (305-311) in the East, and the emperor Maximian Hercules (284-305) in the West. While being a direct witness to the terrible persecution of Christians instituted by Diocletian, at the same time Constantine saw the triumph of the Christian faith, which manifested itself in countless miracles and God’s help to the holy martyrs. Constantine was tall, handsome and physically strong, and at the same time good-natured and modest, for which he was loved by the people and the army. This provoked envy of him on the part of other court officials, especially Caesar Galerius, who even plotted to bar Constantine from ruling his part of the Empire. Seeing this, Constantine fled to Gaul, where after the death of Constantius Chlorus in 306 the army proclaimed Constantine emperor of Gaul and Britain in York, UK. Constantine was then 32 years old. After coming into power, his first act was to declare freedom for Christianity in all his provinces.
In 311 the cruel tyrant Maxentius became ruler of the western half of the Empire, and he decided to get rid of Constantine and reign alone. In 312 Constantine himself embarked upon a military campaign against the Roman emperor, in order to rid Rome of the evil tyrant. This campaign was extremely difficult, since the enemy’s army greatly outnumbered Constantine’s; moreover, Maxentius used the help of evil forces by shielding himself and his army with sorcery and magic. Constantine realized that relying on human powers was not enough, and he then remembered the one true God and began praying to Him, asking for help from above.
And the Lord sent an extraordinary omen to His chosen one. On the eve of a decisive battle, Constantine and his whole army saw in the sky the sign of a cross, made up of light and spread across the sun, with the inscription: “With this you shall vanquish” (NIKA in Greek). Constantine was perplexed, since the cross, being an instrument of shameful execution, was considered by the Romans to be a bad omen. However, the very next night Jesus Christ Himself appeared to Constantine with a cross in His hand and told him that with this sign he would vanquish his foe; and He commanded him to make a banner with the image of the holy Cross. Constantine followed the Lord’s command and defeated the enemy, becoming the ruler of the entire western half of the Empire.
With his first decree the new emperor proclaimed full religious tolerance among his subjects; at the same time, he became the protector of Christians, repealed the penalty of death by crucifixion, and enacted laws favourable to the Church of Christ.
Meanwhile, the ruler of the eastern half of the Empire, the pagan Licinius, also a cruel and perfidious tyrant, went to war against Constantine. Armed with the power of the cross, Emperor Constantine stood against Licinius and roundly defeated him, becoming the new sovereign of the entire Roman Empire. The victory over Licinius instilled in Constantine an even greater realization of God’s help, and he worked at spreading the Christian faith among his subjects, decreeing Christianity to be the state religion in the Empire.
After Constantine became the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire, he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 which guaranteed religious tolerance for Christians. 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. After three hundred years of persecution, Christians could finally practice their faith without fear.
Renouncing paganism, the Emperor did not let his capital remain in ancient Rome, the former centre of the pagan realm. He transferred his capital to the East, to the city of Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople, the city of Constantine. Constantine was deeply convinced that only Christianity could unify the immense Roman Empire with its diverse peoples. He supported the Church in every way. He recalled Christian confessors from banishment, he built churches, and he showed concern for the clergy.
The emperor deeply revered the victory-bearing Sign of the Cross of the Lord, and also wanted to find the actual Cross upon which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified. For this purpose he sent his own mother, the holy Empress Helen, to Jerusalem, granting her both power and money. Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem and St Helen began the search, and through the will of God, the Life-Creating Cross was miraculously discovered in 326.
While in Palestine, the holy empress did much of benefit for the Church. She ordered that all places connected with the earthly life of the Lord and His All-Pure Mother, should be freed of all traces of paganism, and she commanded that churches should be built at these places.
The emperor Constantine ordered a magnificent church in honour of Christ’s Resurrection to be built over His tomb. St Helen gave the Life-Creating Cross to the Patriarch for safe-keeping, and took part of the Cross with her for the emperor. After distributing generous alms at Jerusalem and feeding the needy (at times she even served them herself), the holy Empress Helen returned to Constantinople, where she died in the year 327.
Because of her great services to the Church and her efforts in finding the Life-Creating Cross, the empress Helen is called “the Equal of the Apostles.”
The peaceful state of the Christian Church was disturbed by quarrels, dissensions and heresies which had appeared within the Church. Particularly ruinous for the Church was the rise of the Arian heresy in the East, which denied the Divine Nature of the Son of God, and taught that Jesus Christ was a mere creature. By order of the emperor, the First Ecumenical Council was convened in the city of Nicea in 325.
318 bishops attended this Council. Among its participants were confessor-bishops from the period of the persecutions and many other luminaries of the Church, among whom was St Nicholas of Myra in Lycia. The emperor was present at the sessions of the Council. The heresy of Arius was condemned and a Symbol of Faith (Creed) composed, in which was included the term “consubstantial with the Father,” confirming the truth of the divinity of Jesus Christ, Who assumed human nature for the redemption of all human race.
One might possibly be surprised by St Constantine’s grasp of theological issues during the discussions at the Council. The term “consubstantial” was included in the Symbol of Faith at his insistence.
After the Council of Nicea, St Constantine continued with his active role in the welfare of the Church. He accepted holy Baptism on his deathbed, having prepared for it with all his whole life. St Constantine died on the day of Pentecost in the year 337 and was buried in the church of the Holy Apostles, in a crypt he had prepared for himself.
On June 3rd (May 21st by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the great Saints – Equal-of-the-Apostles Constantine and Helen.
Troparion (Tone 8)
Having seen the figure of the Cross in the heavens, and like Paul not having received his call from men, O Lord, Your apostle among rulers, the Emperor Constantine, has been set by Your hand as ruler over the Imperial City that he preserved in peace for many years, through the prayers of the Theotokos, o only lover of mankind.
Kontakion (Tone 3)
Today Constantine and his mother Helen reveal the precious Cross, the weapon of the faithful against their enemies. For our sakes, it has been shown to be a great sign, and fearsome in battle.