There is an old saying, “Its not whether the story is true, it’s the truth in the story.” This couldn’t be a better description than the legend of St Helena, patron of archaeologists, new discoveries, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people.
As a young woman she met, and may have married, a Roman general named Constantius Chlorus. Around 274 they had a son, Constantine.
Whatever Helena’s relation to Constantius Chlorus, she was set aside in order that he could marry Theodora, daughter of the Emperor Maximian. In 293 he was appointed Caesar, and when he died in 305. Constantine, his son by Helena, was proclaimed emperor.
At the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 312 AD, Constantine saw a cross in the sky. Beneath the cross were the words, “In hoc signo vinces” – “In this sign, you will conquer.” After his victory, he decreed that Christianity was the official religion of Roman Empire. Helena, now an Empress, was renowned for her acts of charity.
In A.D. 326 Constantine had his son, Crispus, and his second wife, Fausta, put to death over accusations that they had been having an affair. Helena was sickened by this, and set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in an attempt to regain God’s favour for her son. Her aim was to recover some of the sites pertinent to the crucifixion of Jesus.
To eradicate the influence of Christianity, Hadrian had leveled the top of Mount Calvary and erected a temple to the pagan goddess Venus. He also cut away and leveled the hillside where Jesus had been buried and built a temple to the pagan god Jupiter. Ironically, this destruction actually preserved the sacred sites.
According to the story, on September 14, 326, Helena was guided to the site of the Crucifixion by an aged Jew named Judas, who had inherited traditional knowledge as to its location. After the ground had been dug to a considerable depth, three crosses were found, as well as the superscription placed over the Savior’s head on the Cross, and the nails with which He had been crucified. The Cross of the Lord was distinguished from the other two by laying the crosses on a dead woman who was revived by the touch of the third Cross. Some versions say that she was ill and immediately recovered.
Helena died on August 18, 328, not long after returning from the Holy Land. Her feast day is August 18.
Did Helena really find the True Cross? Crucifixions were carried out daily and the crosses were reused. It’s possible that through divine guidance they were somehow preserved, or that that crosses were removed and hidden to keep believers from claiming them. And it is equally possible that the story has been embellished during the 1700 years since Helena made her pilgrimage. But whether or not the story is true, the truth in the story remains: a woman, almost 80 years old, had the faith and devotion to make the pilgrimage in search of the relics of Jesus.