Constantine and queen Helena’s role in preserving holy sites (John 19)

Illustration: Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The path of Christian pilgrimage and its appointed sites took distinctive shape during the fourth century A.D. (the early Byzantine period) through the influence and direct involvement of queen Helena and her son Constantine the Great. Flavia Iulia Helena was born in A.D. 248 in Bithynia. She married Constantius Chlorus and gave birth to the future emperor, Constantine the Great, in A.D. 273.

After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, he embarked upon an ambitious building program to adorn sacred sites. His most significant accomplishment was the discovery and excavation of the (probable) site of Jesus’ burial. According to Eusebius, the entire area had been covered with debris and converted into a pagan shrine. Constantine ordered the area to be cleared and purified. He then sponsored the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in A.D. 326 to mark the place of Jesus’ suffering. Eusebius reported Constantine’s aim as having been the construction of the most beautiful structure in the entire empire (Life of Constantine 3.31).

During this same year Helena travelled to the eastern provinces and spent an appreciable amount of time touring the Holy Land. Under imperial sponsorship she dedicated two important churches: the Church of Nativity in Bethleham, to mark the cave where Christ Was thought to have been born, and the church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives to indicate the place of His ascension (Life of Constantine 4.42). Whether these sites are indeed the places where Jesus was born and buried are open to debate. Later legendary accounts also attribute Helena the discovery of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified and the titulus, the plaque announcing the charge against him: “JESUS OF NAZARTH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19).

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