No doubt about it, for modern Protestant Christians the designation of the Emperor Constantine as isapostolos (“equal-to-the-apostles”) is about as welcome as a monstrance in the midst of a praise band song. The controversy doesn’t have only to do with Constantine’s scandalous conduct–murder, treachery, death-bed baptism–but the whole dynamic set in motion by first his Edict of Toleration and then his making of Christianity the official religion of the Empire. This decrying of the “Constantinization” of Christianity has been taken in with Protestants’ mother’s milk, and fuels our own present-day battles (and really, they’re hardly dialogues) on the separation of Church and State.
But maybe we should pause this day, the feast day of Sts. Constantine and Helen, and look again at what they’ve wrought by their lives and prayers.
First, let’s admit that when Christianity is the persecuted religion, conversions tend to be both serious and numerous. And when that same Christianity is no longer persecuted, but even linked to the Empire, Christian life becomes less countercultural and its moral witness is often compromised. Not for nothing did St. Anthony escape to the desert and become the father of monasticism. Not for nothing did St. John Golden-mouth chide his churches for their lack of distinction from the pagan society around them. Even in our own day, the churches in Soviet Russia and in Germany often failed to distinguish themselves from the evil regimes that despised the Church’s Lord. But then again, I’m not one to judge–pampered and un-persecuted as I am, would I have lived any different of a Christian witness? What would I have done seeing thousands upon thousands of my brothers and sisters tortured, imprisoned and executed? Would I have compromised my beliefs–even to save the lifes of my fellow Christians?
Still and all, despite the criticisms we can level against the abuses and weaknesses of the Constantinian Church, we should hesitate to pick up yet another stone before we consider some of the following points.
Constantine’s mother Helena (or Helen) was the driving force behind the Emperor when it came to considerations regarding the Church. Herself a Christian and frequently in danger prior to her son’s rise to the throne, it was largely her prayers and witness that moved Constantine to end the persecution of Christians and make our Faith one of the licit religions of the Empire. St. Helen, of course, is also well-known for discovering the True Cross. She joins the ranks of St. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother, Hannah, mother of Samuel the prophet, Sts. Lois and Eunice, mother and grandmother of St. Timothy, and all the countless mothers throughout history who lived a life of faith that changed lives, including that of their own offspring. So any criticism we may have of the Constantinian Church should take note of what impact a godly mother can have on an entire conglomeraiton of nations and of the history of the world.
Consider also that through Constantine’s imperial invitation to the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea we Christians today have a Faith that connects back to the Apostles. More than that, we have a Faith that truly saves. For if Arius had finally accomplished his ends, Christianity and the true Gospel would have disappeared from the face of the earth. We would all be Jehovah’s Witnesses or United Pentecostals. But if we were, we would not have a Gospel that would save. We would still be lost in our sins. Thanks to Constantine, the bishops and clergy of the Church could meet and the Faith of the Apostles be confirmed–despite that a majority of Christians at the time held to an heretical view of Jesus and the Trinity.
Due to the cessation of the persecution against Christians, Christianity of the fourth century could flower into such full expression that this era is often called the “Golden Age” of the Church (though technically that only applies to the Church Triumphant–but I digress). Think of it, post-toleration we have such giants of the Faith as St. Athanasius, St. Nicholas of Myra, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Macrina, St. John Chrysostom, St. Anthony, and on and on. Men and women whose writings and work for the Church may well never have come into existence, or may have been lost to the flames, had not Constantine given Christianity room to rest and flourish.
Finally, despite obvious and well-discussed problems with imperial Christianity, it is the case that when a Christian ruler sat on the throne, whether of Byzantium or of pre-Revolutionary Russia, the restraining hand of government held back the onslaught of evil. Whether or not this is what Paul refers to in his Thessalonian letter, when secular powers ascended to authority in the nations of history, the abuses and lack of moral restraint were far worse. Would we really think revolutionary France and tsarist Russia morally equivalent? Would a series of Christian Presidents enable enough legislation and set a national tone for moral character such that our slide into chaos and baccanalia would at least slow if not halt altogether? Who among us thinks that Clinton’s moral character was good for this nation? Do we really believe the recent phenomenon of the growth of teens saying that oral sex isn’t sex is completely unconnected with the shenanigans in the Clinton Oval Office? (Bush’s war-time actions have yet to be measured in cultural impact.)
Sadly, yes, Christian rulers have violated their Lord’s commands and killed and oppressed. But when secular rulers reign, the odds are more against a just and moral government than for.
Still and all, let’s today recognize the gifts we now possess because of the lives of Constantine and Helena. And thank God we live when and where we do.
Troparion of Ss Constantine and Helena Tone 8
O Lord, thy disciple Emperor Constantine, who saw in the sky the Sign of Thy Cross,/ Accepted the call that came straight from Thee, as it happened to Paul, and not from any man./ He built his capital and entrusted it to Thy care./ Preserve our country in everlasting peace, through the intercession of the Mother of God,/ for Thou art the Lover of mankind.
Kontakion of Ss Constantine and Helena Tone 3
Today Constantine and Helena his mother expose to our veneration the Cross,/ the awesome Cross of Christ,/ a sign of salvation to the Jews/ and a standard of victory:/ a great symbol of conquest and triumph.