Those of us who have read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and/or seen the movie based upon his book know that St. Constantine is a controversial figure. There are a great many accusations made about Constantine and all one has to do is do a search on YouTube for “Constantine Da Vinci” to get a taste. To name just a few:
- He became Christian for political reasons and corrupted the Church.
- He was a pagan who worshipped the sun and had Christmas moved to December 25th.
- He took over the Church and had Jesus declared a God at the First Ecumenical Council.
- He became a Christian because no pagan religion would forgive him for murdering members of his own family.
- He edited the Bible and had books that didn’t call Jesus God removed.
I could go on. All of these have been used by secularists, opponents of the Church and even Protestants. Their purpose is to make a straw man out of Constantine. It allows them to dismiss the Church as a whole, in the case of secularists and other opponents of the Church, or the 1200 years of Church history between Constantine becoming the first Christian Emperor of Rome and the Protestant Reformation, in the case of some Protestants. What always seems to be missing from these accusations about Constantine is the voice of the Church. To that end, I’d like to take a look at the liturgy that the Orthodox Church celebrates on May 21, the Feast of Sts. Constantine and Helen.
The Church holds up three figures which it uses as metaphors for Constantine: King David, the Apostle Paul, and the person of the bishop.
In the hymns surrounding the feast, the Church invokes the name of King David several times. For example, the First Kathisma from Matins:
In your ways, you were another David; you received the gift from Heaven, in the oil of the Kingdom upon your head. The Word transcended in essence, the Lord of all, anointed you with the Spirit, O glorious one, and you received the royal scepter, wise Constantine, who asks great mercy may be granted to us.
This equation is repeated with the Prokeimenon of the Matins Gospel as well as the Alleluia verses sung between the Epistle and Gospel readings during Liturgy:
I have raised up one chosen out of My people. I have found David my servant, with my holy oil have I anointed him (Acts 13:22; Psalm 89:20).
This calls attention to how St. Constantine and St. David are similar. Obviously, both are kings; but more importantly, both are kings chosen out of God’s people — Israel and the Church. Something that many of the videos on YouTube fail to mention is that Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, was a very devout Christian. Thus, he was raised in context of the Church. Through her, Christ was always present in the life of Constantine. Although he was only baptized at the end of his life, he was, in fact, baptized. He was, in fact, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.
David chose Jerusalem as his capital. He placed the Ark of the Covenant there, establishing Jerusalem as a Holy City. Constantine moved the capitol of the Roman Empire from Rome, with all of its pagan temples, to Constantinople, or as Constantine called it “New Rome.” He built it as a new, Christian city wherein he built churches instead of temples. This new city established a Christian Empire that lasted a thousand years.
Finally, and I would say most importantly, the Church declares that Constantine was given “David’s meekness and gentleness” in the Stichera of the Vespers. Constantine murdered his own wife and son. What many of us forget is that King David is also a murderer — he sent Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, to die in a suicide mission in order to cover up his own adultery with her. The result of this affair was a son who died in infancy. In response, David wrote Psalm 50(51), which begins with these verses:
Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight — That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge (Psalm 51:1-4)
Constantine, in order to stay in good standing with the Church and to be baptized, would have had to do the same. Christ came to save all of us, even murderers and adulterers.
The Apolytikion of Sts. Constantine and Helen states:
Your Apostle among the Rulers, St. Constantine, who once beheld in the sky the image of Your Cross, and who like Paul received his calling not from man, once entrusted the Ruling City into Your hand. We entreat You to restore it in peace forever, at the intercession of the Theotokos, O Lord who loves humanity.
This comparison is emphasized by the Epistle Reading, Paul’s account of his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus in Acts 26:1-2; 12-20:
In those days, King Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: “I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles-to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ “Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance.”
The Church is drawing comparisons between Paul’s conversion moment and Constantine’s. Prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in October of 312, Constantine saw a light in the sky in the form of a cross and the words “By this you shall conquer.” That night Christ came to him in a dream. Upon waking, he immediately made a standard of the cross inscribed with the name of Jesus Christ. His victory at the battle secured his position as the Emperor of the West. By 324 he was the sole monarch of the whole Roman Empire.
Paul persecuted the Church. So did the Roman Empire. Paul converted to Christianity and then became one of the Church’s greatest Apostles, spreading the Gospel all over the Mediterranean. Constantine ended the persecution of Christians by the Empire and made it possible for every Christian, in every place that Paul preached and beyond, to practice their faith openly without fear of harassment.
One of the more intriguing, and subtle, aspects of the feast of Sts. Constantine and Helen is the Gospel reading. The Orthodox Church has specific readings, both for the Epistle and the Gospel, for various feasts. The Epistle Reading for Sts. Constantine and Helen is an example; however, not all saints have specific readings. In these cases, the Church has readings for classifications of saints. For example, Mark 5:24-34 — the woman with a flow of blood that is healed by touching Christ’s garment — is read on the feast of a woman martyr. The Gospel reading for Sts. Constantine and Helen (John 10:1-9) is one of these readings; however, it comes from a surprising source — it is the Gospel reading for bishops.
In the Orthodox understanding, the person of the bishop presents the Church Universal to his people. He is the means by which Orthodox Christians are in communion with the rest of the Church. The bishop also presents his people to the rest of the Church, through other bishops. For example, the Metropolitan of Chicago is in communion with the Metropolitan of Denver. Those Orthodox Christians living in the Metropolis of Chicago are in communion with the Metropolitan of Denver through their bishop, and through the Metropolitan of Denver they are, in turn, in communion with all of the Orthodox Christians in the Metropolis of Denver and vice versa. Using the same model, the Metropolitan of Chicago is not in communion with the Catholic Bishop of Peoria. Thus, neither are the Orthodox Christians in the Metropolis of Chicago. In turn, they are also not in communion with the Catholics in the Diocese of Peoria.
At the same time, a bishop cannot function without any people. This is expressed when Orthodox clergy are ordained. The deacon, priest or bishop is presented to the people, who respond with the exclamation, “Axios!” which means “He is worthy!” It is an expression by the people that they accept this man as their deacon, priest or bishop.
St. Constantine is like a bishop because, in his person, he presented the Church Universal to the entire world as the first Christian Emperor of Rome. He radically changed the way the world saw the Church. Through him, the whole of the Empire moved towards the Church and communion. At the same time, he was beloved. Very shortly after his death, he was recognized by the people as a Saint of God.
One must also not forget that the First Ecumenical Council was convened by Constantine. This event saw bishops from around the world gather at Nicaea and help formulate the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which Orthodox Christians still recite today at every Divine Liturgy.
All too often, figures within Church history are taken out of context in order to justify various theories about Christianity, most of which are aimed at discrediting the Church. These men and women are taken out of context, because when seen within the context of their own time and within the Church, these theories very quickly fall apart. This can be demonstrated with St. Constantine. The picture painted by the Church is of a very human leader — he was flawed as we all are; however, with Christ he overcame those flaws and established an empire where Christianity could finally thrive and give voice to the unity found in Jesus Christ.
If there is one thing we walk away with from this meditation, I hope it is the image of the people crying “Axios!” One thing many of Constantine’s detractors fail to mention is the average person on the street. The people are as important to the Church as Her bishops. We know from the Fathers and other sources that the city of Constantinople during the 4th century was a place where theology was discussed by everyone in every venue. One could hardly buy anything at the market without having to declare a position on the person of Jesus Christ. Throughout Church history, the people have played an important role in rejecting both councils and teachings of the hierarchy that they felt did not represent what was handed down to them by the Apostles. Had Constantine fit the cynical portrayal popular on YouTube, the people would never have accepted him as a saint, let alone the popular saint he still remains to be to this day.