Sauntering with St. Helena of Constantinople

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Helena of Constantinople

  • Micah 4:1-4
  • Psalm 2
  • Luke 23:26-32

This reflection was shared at Sacred Saunter Outdoor Eucharist on Saturday May 22, 2021 at Freshwater in Eureka.

Most Merciful God, who blessed your servant Helena with such grace and devotion to you that she venerated the very footsteps of our Savior; may we too, assisted by her prayers and example, be given the same grace to always see your glory in the cross of your Son. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

On this day, as we honor St. Helena of Constantinople and the very footsteps of Jesus, I invite us to reflect on the mystery and wonder of our own footsteps. From a purely scientific perspective, when we walk on the earth, the magnetic force of the electrons in our shoes push against the electrons on the ground. So technically, we are not walking through life with our feet on the ground. We are floating. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or thin air, but to walk on earth.” So as we saunter, I invite you to walk mindfully, appreciating the mystery and wonder and miracle of each footstep.

Helena was an Empress of Rome and a devout Christian, but is perhaps most renowned for her discoveries of holy sites related to the life of Jesus. 

She was born into a lower class family in the middle of the 3rd century, though we are unsure about where. Many believe she was born in Drepana (now Helenopolis) in northern Asia Minor but this is uncertain. There are also later legends that place her birth in England, and for that she is honored with numerous holy wells across the country. Regardless of birthplace she would eventually become the wife, or at least consort, of Constantius I, who was co-emperor and ruled over Gaul (France) and Britannia (Britain). During this time Helena would give birth to a son, Constantine, in the year 272, but she would soon be divorced and live in the East in the palace of Diocletian.

Once her son gained the Western Empire in the year 312, she returned to Rome and was granted the title Augusta, or Empress, in 325. It was during this time that she made her famous journey to the Holy Land to find the places mentioned in the Gospels, with the most important finds being the Cross of the Crucifixion and the site of the Resurrection. 

Long after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, the Emperor Hadrian had the area rebuilt. As part of this restoration a pagan temple was built on the very site of the Resurrection. Helena ordered this temple be destroyed, had the area excavated, and discovered three crosses along with the epitaph that said, “Jesus, King of the Jews.” To ensure it was truly the cross of Christ, a woman near death was carried to the site and touched each cross in turn. On the third one she was cured and Helena declared this to be the one. She ordered that a church be built which would be called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a major pilgrimage site to this day.

Regardless of the truth of the legend itself, it is certain that she claimed to have found this and many other sites and relics on her journey. Unfortunately, she would not see the completion of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as she died in 330, five years before its completion.

Helena also had a reputation as a faithful Christian who cared for the poor. After her death, several towns would be named in her honor and she would also eventually be given the title of “Equal to the Apostles.” Helena’s faith in her Lord was not a detached spirituality, but an embodied and historical one, such that she eagerly sought to find the very places where the Son of God had walked, taught, died, and rose again. 

The Gospel reading assigned for the feast day of St. Helena is particularly poignant. I’d like to offer a reflection on the Gospel written by a Franciscan, which is appropriate for this day since it was the Franciscans who essentially carried on St. Helena’s legacy as custodians of holy sites in the Holy Land. These are words from a Franciscan who several of you know because he served for a time as the priest-in-charge at Christ Church Eureka. His name was Friar Leo M. Joseph and he wrote these words about the Gospel:

“Could there be such a catastrophe that would cause a mother to regret having brought a new life into this world? Spare me from ever having to face such a day, and never let me fail to find joy in the miracle of new life no matter how troubled the circumstances. Open my heart also to
reverence those who are not able, or consciously choose not, to bear children of their own, and
those, who out of unselfish love, parent, in various ways, the children of others.” (Leo M. Joseph, The Soul’s Journey, 46)

Let us pray a Prayer from Friar Leo:
“May we learn from you, our all-loving Jesus, the redemptive work of compassion for the healing and well-being of the whole creation. May we have courage to go against the flow of the crowd and let us never turn away from seeing your face in the innocent who suffer pain and anguish as a result of unjust systems. Amen.”

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