st helena crosses

St Helena crosses.

I had assumed that, rather like the story of St Augustine and his mother Monica, Helena had influenced Constantine to adopt the Christian faith, but this is not actually the case; Helena was originally a pagan, probably of very lowly origins, who eventually became a Christian in the first years of Constantines reign as a result of his encouragement, after his famous defeat of his rival at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, when he had seen a cross-shaped symbol in the sky encouraging him to victory. But it is certainly true that once Helena had become a Christian she was regarded as a very fervent one, possibly more so than her son for whom his newfound faith always had a suspicion of political expediency about it. 

I am glad though that the calendar which encourages us to celebrate Helena describes her as Protector of the Holy Places.” 

Helena, perhaps under the encouragement of Constantine, made a lengthy journey to the eastern regions of his Empire from about 325 to 328, during which time she visited Palestine and Jerusalem for a substantial period of time, visiting many of the places associated with the earthly life of Jesus. At this time she seems to have inspired and encouraged the building of two, or possibly three, churches, in or near Jerusalem. Each of these churches has its own story which is worth sharing, at least briefly.

The first of Helenas churches was the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the cave where Jesus was traditionally believed to have been born. Only two centuries after it was built, it was heavily damaged in the Samaritan revolt, and then rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian, though very much on the same lines, and though bits have been added on and entrances have been altered since, when you walk into the Basilica of the Nativity today its stunning and austere beauty probably gives you a reasonable impression of what Helenas church might have looked like.

The second of Helenas churches was the Eleona Church, again built over a cave, this time on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. The word Eleona is linked to Olives” and the church commemorated the cave on the Mount of Olives where Jesus had privately taught his disciples, largely about the future. The Eleona Church was largely destroyed in the Persian invasion at the beginning of the 7th century, as were many other churches in the country at the same time. It is said that the Persians spared the Church of the Nativity because they saw there mosaics of the three wise men, dressed in Persian garments. 

The third church is normally called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although perhaps I prefer the name Church of the Resurrection, which is what it is often called by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Again this was built over a cave, this time the cave that had once been the new tomb where the body of Jesus was laid. An associated building was also erected very nearby to mark the site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. In this case Helenas role in the project is unclear; it seems likely that the building was underway before she arrived in the Holy Land, but we can assume she encouraged it and gradually her name became associated with the foundation of the church. The Church of the Resurrection has been damaged, destroyed, and rebuilt several times over the centuries since, although there are still points where one can glimpse traces of the original fourth century building.  While this church marking the site of the tomb and resurrection was being built, pieces of wood were discovered in the bottom of a nearby quarry, and this wood was then believed to be fragments of the Cross. Helenas name is particularly associated with the finding of these pieces and from the main area of the church today you go down stairs first into a chapel dedicated to St Helena, and then down a further flight of stairs to another chapel marking the spot of the discovery of what is formally called the invention” of the Cross. 

Yet with the irony which deliciously marks out Jerusalem to this day, it is far from certain that Helena actually discovered those pieces of wood which were held to be the true cross, and which is of course why icons show her as holding a cross. The earliest sources do not mention it, and it is only 70 or so years later at the end of the 4th century that her name gets associated with the discovery. At that time there were expedient political reasons to make the link. 

Helenas story and her undoubted involvement with the building of holy places” in and near Jerusalem point up for me the ambiguity that holy places” and indeed holy objects such as true crosses” have within our Christian faith. They are both a blessing – but potentially can also become a curse. Our incarnational faith proclaims for us that God can and does cherish and work through the material and the physical, and that we forget this at our peril.  The very physicality of holy places can be a way to keep us earthed in this truth. Perhaps there is indeed a special appropriateness to that church in Bethlehem as marking the place of the incarnation. Perhaps it is not surprising that it is a church which I cherish deeply. And yet holy places are dangerous, they so easily come to symbolise humanitys desire to possess and control, perhaps even to possess God in an exclusive way. Holy places are also especially dangerous when they get mixed up with political realities, which was the undoubtedly the case with Constantine and Helena. It was no accident that Constantines churches were built in the shape of a basilica – the word basilica” means something like kings place” and in the Roman world a basilica was the place where the citizens came together to enable the king, the emperor, or his representative to make decisions and laws and judgements to be shared with the people. Implicitly that Basilica of the Nativity or the Eleona conveyed the message that the emperor was Gods vice-regent on earth, and to rebel against the emperor was to rebel against God. We see the peril of such theology in many parts of the Middle East today, and we certainly see the peril of holy places that pander to the human longing for possession and control. 

One of my favourite comments about holy places was made by a former Greek Catholic Archbishop of Galilee, Joseph Raya, who reminded us that the holiest place” of all for Christians is an empty tomb: suggesting both that holy places are important for Christians – but also our resurrection faith may be called to transcend them. 

When I was honoured to be offered a canonry in the Diocese in Europe last year, I am grateful that the stall that Bishop Robert deliberately chose for me is the one dedicated to St Helena in the pro-Cathedral in Malta. Bishop Robert knew that Helenas links to the Holy Land and holy places would speak to me. And that is very true, in spite of the ambiguities of her life and her role as Protector of the Holy Places” that I have tried to share in this reflection. If we can describe Helena as a patron saint for people who want to find ways of God working through human muddle and human imperfections, then I think she is the right patron saint for me.

About the author :

Canon Dr Clare Amos is former head of the WCC office for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.