The conversion of Constantine

These week my son’s class began a discussion of imperial Rome. As a wrap-up, a quiz on the section was assigned, for which I gladly accepted my son’s pleas to aid him in studying.

One of the items on the quiz was the Emperor Constantine. Not only as Orthodox Christians, but also as children who are interested in truthful and factual history, we must be keenly aware of the disinformation that exists concerning this “Equal to the Apostles”, Saint Constantine.

This post is not meant to be an exhaustive pannygyric in defense of the Saint but rather a modest attempt to clarify certain points concerning this great Saint.

To begin, it is important to state the fact that the early history of the Church was filled with different episodes of persecution, reaching a zenith during the reign of Diocletian. It is also important to mention that his contemporaries, both on the royal throne, and governors in the provinces, were persecutors of the faith. His Father, Constantius, was a notable exception. He was respectful of the Church, offering them tolerance in his province when the rest of the world would not offer the same.

A study of the archaeology and history reveals that there existed few Churches in the East prior to the 4th century. Quite simply, the Church was in hiding during this time. With the ascent of Saint Constantine and the Edict of Milan, Christianity for the first time was openly practiced. We also know that Saint Constantine and his mother, the most-pious Saint Helen, offered much in the way of alms to the Church. They contributed for the building of many, many churches. During his reign many splendid Churches were erected in Rome. Saint Constantine not only tolerated Christianity, he openly promoted it!

Some scholars have argued that Saint Constantine also changed the Church. This again is not accurate. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Saints Ignatius and Justin, among others, confirm some of the details that affirm the structure and essential dogmas of the Church were in place well before Saint Constantine’s rule: hierarchy of the Church, the belief in the Eucharist as being the very Body and very Blood of the Saviour, as well belief in the Trinitarian formula of God. Further, these fathers also confirmed the duality of Christ, being both God and Man.

Detractors of the Saint have also attacked the so-called mid-day apparition as false-hood, a phantasm, or some other ridiculous and impious manifestation. It is here that I shall turn to Eusebius, the historian, for his detailed description surrounding this event.

O Saints of God Constantine and Helen intercede for us!

Concerning the miraculous appearance of the Cross:

How, while he was praying, God sent him a Vision of a Cross of Light in the Heavens at Mid-day, with an Inscription admonishing him to conquer by that.

ACCORDINGLY he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, (1) when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after- time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. (2)

He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.

Concerning The Making of the Standard of the Cross.

AT dawn of day he arose, and communicated the marvel to his friends: and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones. And this representation I myself have had an opportunity of seeing.

A Description of the Standard of the Cross, which the Romans now call the Labarum. (1)

Now it was made in the following manner. A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, (2) the symbol of the Saviour’s name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre…

Eusebius of Caesarea
The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine; Chapters 28031