Icon of Sts. Constantine and Helen with scenes from the life of Christ and Constantine
This great and renowned sovereign of the Christians was the son of Constantius Chlorus (the ruler of the westernmost parts of the Roman empire), and of the blessed Helen. He was born in 272, in (according to some authorities) Naissus of Dardania, a city on the Hellespont. In 306, when his father died, he was proclaimed successor to his throne. In 312, on learning that Maxentius and Maximinus had joined forces against him, he marched into Italy, where, while at the head of his troops, he saw in the sky after midday, beneath the sun, a radiant pillar in the form of a cross with the words: "By this shalt thou conquer." The following night, our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him in a dream and declared to him the power of the Cross and its significance. When he arose in the morning, he immediately ordered that a labarum be made (which is a banner or standard of victory over the enemy) in the form of a cross, and he inscribed on it the Name of Jesus Christ. On the 28th Of October, he attacked and mightily conquered Maxentius...The following day, Constantine entered Rome in triumph and was proclaimed Emperor...Under him and because of him all the persecutions against the Church ceased. Christianity triumphed and idolatry was overthrown. In 325 he gathered the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, which he himself personally addressed...Falling ill near Nicomedia, he requested to receive divine Baptism and when he had been deemed worthy of the Holy Mysteries, he reposed in 337, on May 21 or 22, the day of Pentecost, having lived sixty-five years, of which he ruled for thirty-one years. His remains were transferred to Constantinople and were deposed in the Church of the Holy Apostles, which had been built by him.
While in the West, Constantine's holiness is regarded as a bit more ambiguous, in the East, he is commemorated with some minor solemnity, and is regarded, as the title of this post notes, as "equal to the Apostles." By this is meant not his position within the ecclesial hierarchy, nor his dogmatic teaching authority, nor even his personal sanctity (even though Eusebius movingly notes that from the moment of his baptism, Constantine wore purple no more, but only the white robe of his baptismal garment). Rather, the Church acclaims that his activity was comparable to the Apostles' in spreading the Gospel through all the world, and for this reason she sings on his feast as on the feast of the Apostles, "Their utterance has gone forth into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world." It is one of those marks of Providence, that St. Constantine entered into eternal life on Pentecost, and was laid to rest in the Church of the Apostles. The Troparion for the day notes that Constantine, through his heavenly vision of the Cross, received, "like Paul the summons that was not from men." The link to St. Paul is stressed even more by the reading from the Acts of the Apostles prescribed for today, where Paul bears testimony of his conversion to King Agrippa (Acts 26 1-5, 12-20); such a conversion story is to be taken as a type of Constantine's. Constantine is further acclaimed in the troparion Christ's "apostle among kings" who entrusted the imperial city into the Sacred Hands.
St. Constantine's Vision and Subsequent Victory at the Milvian Bridge.
For the purpose of this post, I want to focus not on the objections to Constantine's personal sanctity, but rather on the Liturgy's portrayal of his sacred office. In particular, I want to draw attention to the Evangelion of the day. Every major commemoration of a saint has two Gospel readings prescribed, one for Matins and one for the Divine Liturgy. For the commemoration of saintly bishops, the standard Matins Gospel is Jn. 10:1-9, where Jesus describes the shepherd of the sheep as he who enters through the door, and then identifies himself as the door. The Gospel for the Divine Liturgy is then Jn. 10:9-16, where Christ declares himself the the Good Shepherd and promises one flock and one shepherd.
On the feast of St. Constantine, however, (and also on the feast of Prince Volodymyr of Kiev, also equal to the apostles), the order is reversed. The Matins Gospel is Jn. 10:9-16, and the Gospel for the Divine Liturgy is Jn. 1-9. For a bishop's commemoration, therefore, the last Gospel the faithful hear will declare at its ending: "I am the good shepherd...and I have other sheep not of this fold; I must bring them also...so there shall be one flock and one shepherd." But for the feast of St. Constantine, the faithful are left with: "I am the door; if anyone enters by me he shall be saved, and will go in, and find pasture." While both bishop and emperor are presented to us as participating in Christ's role as Shepherd, the emphasis for the emperor is the image of the door. He serves as the door through which the faithful come to the shepherd that secures their unity. The emperor is a "royal door" through which the world is brought into the sheepfold.
It is Constantine the emperor who has been chosen by God to bring about the conversion of the inhabitants of the Roman world. He, the “joy and pride of the Romans,” was the one who, in the words of the Pentecost troparion, “drew those who spoke foreign languages into a single tongue in the faith.” God in his providence had ordained this work not for a bishop, patriarch, monk, or even original apostle. The pax Romana had been intended by providence for the spread of the Gospel, and this fulfillment of Augustus' pax Romana was the work of Augustus' successor in the purple. From Constantine on, the empire was steadily advancing to complete Christianization. In this work, Constantine was like the vicar of Christ on earth. As the apostles had continued to carry out the work of Christ, so too, it was believed did Constantine. Eusebius of Caesarea drew out the details of the comparison, noting that while the Father could be understood to govern the cosmos through the Word, Christ governs man through the emperor:
[Christ is] that Light which, streaming from on high, proceeds from that Deity who knows not origin or end, and illumines the super-celestial regions, and all that heaven itself contains, with the radiance of wisdom bright beyond the splendor of the sun. This is he who holds a supreme dominion over this whole world, who is over and in all things, and pervades all things visible and invisible; the Word of God. From whom and by whom our divinely favored emperor, receiving, as it were a transcript of the Divine sovereignty, directs, in imitation of God himself, the administration of this world's affairs.
This praise certainly strikes the modern western ear as excessive, but the list of Constantine's public works is fairly astounding: he erected multiple and elaborate churches, including the monument to Christ's Sepulcher, he passed a variety of laws prohibiting gladiatorial combat, certain kinds of sacrifice to idols, and homosexual pagan rites, while at the same time legislating Sunday be a day of worship, no longer penalizing celibates, and offering gifts and bounties to the poor, virgins, and the Church. Here at last was an emperor not intent on destroying the Church, but instead building it up. The laws of the Church were being introduced throughout the civilized world; at last there was a truly universal mechanism for realizing the laws, morals and glory of the Church.
In view of these actions, we can understand the second title attributed to Constantine. He was a bishop. As Eusebius recounts,
Hence it was not without reason that once, on the occasion of his entertaining a company of bishops, he [Constantine] let fall the expression, that he himself too was a bishop, addressing them in my hearing in the following words: You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church. And truly his measures corresponded with his words: for he watched over his subjects with an episcopal care, and exhorted them as far as in him lay to follow a godly life.
While the title of “equal to the apostles" was intended to express Constantine's role in the evangelization of the world, the title of bishop was meant to communicate his care for the baptized Christians already present in the empire. His priesthood was found in his offering of his mind to God, placing his salvific imperial work under the inspiration and direction of the Deity. By promoting the peace and unity of the empire, protecting the Church from outside enemies, and by making laws in accord with Christian morality the emperor was an external bishop.
Fresco traditionally attributed to Manuel Panselinos in Protaton Church of Mt. Athos, 13th century
This idea of Constantine as an external bishop is what lays behind the reversal of the Gospel readings described above. He is like a bishop; the same two Gospels are read on the feast of both he and many a holy bishop. But the bishop's gaze is directed internally to the governance of the Church, while the emperor's gaze is directed to ordering the wider world, but in a way that sees the secular governance as a door that leads to the life of the Church.
The reading from Acts prescribed for today, therefore, has a two-fold point. Not only is St. Constantine like St. Paul as regards the origin of his apostolic mission, he is also a bit like King Agrippa who grants the Apostles in the person of St. Paul, permission to speak in the public court. Thus he is both King and Apostle, and serves, as depicted in the Hagia Sophia to support the Church. But even more importantly, he also, together with his saintly mother, takes the heavenly vision of the Cross, and like an Apostle, makes the Gospel of the Cross present throughout the world. As the Church sings in her Kontakion:
Today Constantine and Helen his mother reveal the cross, the all precious wood which shames those who refuse to believe.Holy and Great Constantine and Helen, equal to the Apostles, pray for us!
10th century Mosaic of Constantine, Hagia Sophia