Every September 14, we observe Holy Cross Day as a lesser festival, singing “Lift High the Cross” (ELW 660). It’s an ancient Christian celebration, going back to at least the seventh century. But did you know there’s a bold woman at the heart of Holy Cross Day? We need to hear her story more often. So here it is.
Around the middle of the third century, a Roman army officer stationed out in the provinces met a barmaid, and before long, they had a son together: Constantine. This officer, Constantius, was an ambitious man—and that meant his relationship with the barmaid Helena couldn’t last forever. Before long, Constantius set Helena aside to marry an imperial princess and get in line for the throne.
All very well for Constantius, but what about Helena and Constantine? Since the boy was now a prince himself, the imperial family gave him and his mother a home. When Constantine was old enough, he joined the army, which sent him to help his father Constantius fight the barbarians in Britain.
Constantine loved his mother
When Constantius died, only a year later, the army acclaimed Constantine as emperor (that’s how they did it in those days), and although he had to fight for it, Constantine finally won his crown. At last, in the year 312, he called for his mother, and she gladly came to Rome. Constantine showered every honor upon Helena, even naming her empress. What a change for the former barmaid!
Helena was a Christian, and Constantine attributed his victories to Christ. Remember, the Roman empire outlawed our faith for many years—sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated, sometimes ignored altogether, but always outlawed. Constantine changed that and granted tolerance to all religions in the empire.
That was only the beginning. Constantine didn’t just tolerate Christianity; he actively promoted it, building churches throughout the empire. And then he called for his mother Helena once again.
The holy sites in and around Jerusalem had been lost for nearly 200 years, since the Romans, having had enough of revolts and rebellions, had razed the city and plowed under the ashes. Now Constantine wanted those holy sites found, excavated, and preserved, with Christian churches to honor them. Who better to lead the expedition to find the holy sites than Helena? But what a big project!
Helena stayed busy
No one can say Constantine didn’t give her everything she needed to accomplish the task he set for her. He put all the resources of the Roman treasury (imagine!) at Helena’s disposal, and off she went, with an army of servants, soldiers, laborers, and builders in her train. As she traveled, she founded churches, hospitals, and hostels to serve and shelter the poor and destitute.
In Jerusalem, Helena found that a temple to the Roman goddess Venus had been built over the empty tomb. According to tradition, Helena ordered that the temple be torn down and chose a spot to begin digging. This excavation led to the discovery of three crosses, one of which had the titulus, the board with the title “The King of the Jews” still attached. And that, according to the story, was the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Helena also found three nails in that excavation, identifying them as the nails with which Jesus was crucified.
Constantine ordered that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—which still stands, rebuilt, remodeled, added to, repaired, and embellished over the centuries—be built over the spot where his mother had found the crosses. The church is big enough to enclose both Calvary and the empty tomb, both of which are sites of pilgrimage to this day.
Helena was a bold, steadfast woman
Helena had a silver shrine made for a piece of the cross and entrusted it to the bishop of Jerusalem. Then, in about the year 327, she headed home after a job well done, taking with her a big piece of the cross, the nails she had found, and enough earth from Jerusalem to cover the floor of her private chapel in her palace outside Rome. Back home, at last, she installed her treasures in the chapel. Helena died peacefully with her beloved son Constantine at her side in about the year 330.
Helena was a bold woman of steadfast faith and determination—she’d have to be, to accomplish the project Constantine had given her. So when you stand to sing “Lift High the Cross” this year, remember Helena and imagine how thrilled she must have been when her workers lifted an old wooden cross out of the earth that had covered it for so long.
Audrey Novak Riley is director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA.
Feature photo: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: callme tim, Flickr Creative Commons.