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As a boy growing up in Pennsylvania I felt like a small Jewish fish swimming in a vast, boundless sea of Christians, while Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus were the stuff of storybooks. Now, however, I am repeatedly encountering the idea, on the Internet and in the mass media, that Christianity is running out of time. Today I Googled the phrase "demise of Christianity" and got 766,000 hits. The themes under that category included secularization of former Christians; the choice not to have children; a preference for personal spirituality over organized churches, and escalating geographic relocations due to competition from other, more assertive religions. Many believe that Christianity is not only vanishing from places like Lebanon and Iraq, but drastically losing numbers in Italy, the UK, and elsewhere. These dramatic current events described aroused my curiosity about where all of the Christians came from in the first place, and that led me to the story of the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, and that of his mother Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta.
The short version of those fascinating stories is that Helena (sometimes called St. Helen in English) became a Christian and influenced her son, a powerful and dynamic leader who reunited a broken Roman Empire, legalized Christianity in that empire (lions, remember?) , and rebuilt the ancient Greek town of Byzantium as a city in his own name, which kept the Roman Empire going until 1453. (No, the occupation of Rome by Germanic tribes in 476 was not the end of the empire, but of the western, Latin-speaking half. The Greek-speaking eastern half survived until Constantinople was occupied by the Ottoman Empire under the Sultan Mehmet II.) Constantine convened a council of Christian bishops in 325 in Nicaea, a town on the Asian side of the Bosporos strait, and it was this council, perhaps more than any other historical event, which turned Christianity into an "organized" religion. Sixty-six years later another emperor, Flavius Theodosius, proclaimed the Christianity of Nicaea as the state religion of the whole Roman Empire. Theodosius banned worship of the ancient pagan gods, closed their temples, and, in 391, extinguished the "eternal" fire of the Vestal Virgins.
Helena Augusta, who was made a saint by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity (there is a popular visitor's destination in the California Wine Country named after St. Helena), was reportedly the daughter of an innkeeper who bore the imperial son of Constantine's father, also named Constantine. The father later abandoned Helena for a political marriage, and St. Helena is now a patron of divorced people. However, Helena's greatest claim to fame, other than gaining her son's sympathy for Christians, was an extraordinary journey at the age of eighty to Jerusalem in search of the same cross upon which Jesus of Nazareth was said to have been crucified. With the help of a bishop, and the permission of her son the Emperor, Helena began an archaeological dig at a Temple of Venus, believed to have been over the tomb of Jesus. (She has also become the patron saint of archaeologists.) The remains of three crosses were found. But which one was the cross upon which Jesus had been crucified?
If such a question were to be answered today, a huge database of historical information and the use of scientific techniques such as radio-carbon dating and DNA testing would be invoked. Helena had none of these tools, so she employed a method more in the spirit of the time. Taking samples from each of the three crosses, she made rounds of the sick, touching each patient with a cross sample. One woman suddenly recovered from her illness. By the "science" of the time, the True Cross had been identified. Kept for a while in Jerusalem, it eventually suffered from being cut into pieces, which were fought over by an Iranian Shah, crusaders, and countless churches. In a church in Spain, a relic is currently considered to be the largest remaining piece of the True Cross.
As for Constantine himself, who was not baptized until he was near death, a notable story was the decisive battle of the Milvian Bridge, a stone structure across the Tiber on the Via Flaminia. A rival emperor of the divided Empire chose the bridge as the battleground to keep Constantine's troops out of Rome. According to various legends, Constantine had a vision, or a dream, in which he saw a powerful symbol, and heard the words in hoc signo vinces, "in this sign you conquer." He is said to have had the sign painted on the shields of his men before the battle. But what was the sign? To some, it was a cross, but apparently the most popular version is that it was the letter X superimposed over the letter P (the labarum), which are also the Greek letters chi and rho, which are also the first two letters of the Greek word christos, meaning "anointed." That, of course, is that name by which Jesus of Nazareth is known throughout the Christian world: Jesus the anointed Christ.Permanent Link to This Entry | | Technorati Tag: Christ blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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