The Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St Helena on August 18 annually, three days after the solemnity known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Aside from the closeness of these two days, there are also connections between the two women in question that may not seem obvious at first. Even though they lived three centuries apart, the pair has a clear relationship with the Cross of Jesus Christ.
St Helena’s story is surrounded more by unverified legend than substantiated truth although it was being told during her lifetime. It was written down in the early fourth century by St Cyril of Jerusalem, a bishop whose stand against the more popular Arian heresy dominated his religious life and almost pulled him into it. Arianism did not recognize a divine connection between God the Father and the Son Jesus Christ. Under those conditions, it’s easy to understand that the Virgin Mary was not recognized in her full glory either. It would be another century after the Council of Nicaea (325AD) recognized the ‘consubstantiality’ of Father and Son, before the Church would regard Mary as ‘Theotokis,’ God bearer, the Mother of God.
Almost everything that is written in the New Testament about the Blessed Mother is contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. She is alluded to in Bible prophecy such as the ‘Book of Isaiah,’ and the apocryphal ‘Book of Revelation.’ The Coptic books of the ancient Nag Hammadi library contain ‘The Gospel of the Birth of Mary’ and ‘The Protevangelion,’ which comprise not only the story of Mary from birth to Jesus, but also the roles of her parents, Anne and Joachim.
The truth of the matter is, we assume a great deal with regards to the Blessed Mother, who is rightly considered the truest follower of Christianity. She was also a victim of the Cross, kneeling at her Son’s feet in his final moments of human life. Tradition has always held her free from sin, even to the point that she was born without the original sin of the Garden of Eden, an honor that is bestowed on no one else (known as the ‘Immaculate Conception.’) Further, her assumption into heaven was not recognized by the Church until 1950 even though it had been a part of Christian tradition since the earliest days. In other words, the Church believes that Mary lived and died with Jesus at Calvary, and was also assumed to heaven in much the same manner as he was. Helena’s encounter with the Cross took a much different turn.
The oldest information we have on St Helena comes from the Father of Church History Eusebius. He said that she possessed the truth and was three times blessed by the Lord. She did not appear to suffer death but rather experienced a ‘transition’ from earth to heaven, where she was personally received by the Savior.
Two popular stories exist about Helena’s early days. The English tradition is that she was born in Britain and was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester. It was said that she met a Roman officer Constantius and married him before he became the emperor. Most biblical scholars believe, however, that she was born an innkeeper’s daughter in Asia Minor near a place that would one day bear her name, Helenopolis. In either case, she did marry the Roman officer, but was later divorced by him so that he could marry Theodora, the step-daughter of Roman Emperor Maximian, and thus become ruler of Gaul and Britain. There is no evidence that Helena was ever denied the residence or luxury of royalty by her ex-husband or their son, Constantine the Great.
In the years before he became the sole emperor of an oft divided Roman Empire, Constantine is said to have had a vision in which he was shown the Cross and told by God to adopt it as the sign of his legions. The emperor continued to practice paganism alongside his new Christian faith and was not baptized until his deathbed, but he took steps that finally made Christianity a viable force in the empire. With the Edict of Milan, he granted religious freedom to all including the Christians. He forced the Council of Nicaea to happen believing that a harmonious Church would lead to a harmonious empire. It was during these days that his mother began to practice the faith fervently for the first time, certainly because of his influence.
Helena had a passionate desire to find the Cross on which hung the Savior of the world. The search became the thing she is most known for, and dozens of legends have sprung up around the quest. Constantine had determined to build a great cathedral where Jesus was supposed to have been crucified, and though she was about eighty years old, his mother led a military-evangelical mission to the region.
There are many tales of how it came about and was proven, but almost immediately, Christians accepted that Helena did in fact find the true Cross. Her exploits in the Middle East were being written down and recalled in sermons throughout the Christian world including one by St Ambrose only a few years after her death. Helena is remembered not only for the many churches she built, but also for her overwhelming charitable works. Although no spiritual visions were recorded by her, Eusebius wrote that she became such knowledgeable follower of Christ that it was as if he had taught her himself.
Helena died either in Rome or in Drepanum, the town that became Helenopolis, but is believed in either case to have been buried in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine was at her side. However, Eusebius made the declaration that she had transitioned and been received by the Lord. Jesus and Mary were not the only people who ascended into heaven from what appeared to be a mortal state. In Jesus’ case, it was seen by no less than his surviving eleven apostles. Mary, too, was witnessed in her transition. The only extant records we have for St Helena are legend and the writing of Eusebius.
These are not the only stories of miraculous ascensions. For example, Enoch was said to have walked with God until he was “no more.” (Genesis 5:24) The great prophet Elijah tried to separate himself from his protégé Elisha when his time to go arrived, and he assured the understudy that when he saw Elijah ascend to heaven, he would know that he was to carry on their mission. A fiery chariot that appeared out of a cloud prevented Elisha from interfering as Elijah was indeed lifted up on a whirlwind in full view of his disciple, who saw him “no more.” (2 Kings 2:1-14)
What Helena had in common with Jesus and Mary, Elijah and Enoch is that she talked to God, and most especially, she listened to God All of these people allowed God’s will to work through them, and were gifted with the opportunity to walk with him, as well. And because of that, they were examples to faithful people living in each of their times and ever since.