The Holy Emperor Constantine (306-337), has received from the Church the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” and in world history he received the name “the Great.” He was the son of Caesar Constantius Chlorus (305-306), governing the lands of Gaul and Britania. The immense Roman empire was at this time divided into a Western and an Eastern empire, at the head of which were two independent emperors and also co-rulers titled “Caesars,” – such in the Western half of the Roman empire was the aforementioned father of Saint Constantine. Saint Contantine’s mother was the empress Helen, who was a Christian. The future ruler of all the whole Roman empire, Constantine, was raised to have respect for the Christian religion. His father did not persecute Christians in the lands governed by him, and this at a time when through all the rest of the Roman empire Christians were subjected to fierce persecutions by the emperors Diocletian (284-305) together with his co-ruler Maximian Galerius (305-311) in the East, and the emperor Maximian Hercules (284-305) in the West.
After the death of Constantius Chlorus, his son Constantine in 306 was proclaimed by the army as emperor of Gaul and Britania. The first act of the new emperor was to promulgate in the lands subject to him the freedom of confession of the Christian faith. The pagan fanatic Maximian Galerius in the East and the fierce tyrant Maxentius in the West hated the emperor Constantine and they plotted to overthrow and kill him, but Constantine bested them in a series of battles, and he defeated his opponents with the help of God. He prayed to God to give him a sign, which should inspire his army to fight valiantly, and the Lord manifest to him in the heavens a radiant Sign of the Cross with the inscription “With this Sign thou wilt conquer.” Having become sole ruler of the Western half of the Roman empire, Constantine in the year 313 issued the Edict of Milan concerning religious toleration, and in the year 323, when he came to rule as the sole ruler over the whole Roman empire, he extended the conditions of the Milan Edict also over the Eastern half of the Roman empire. After three hundred years of persecution, Christians finally received the possibility to openly confess their faith in Christ.
Renouncing paganism, the emperor did not let his capital remain in ancient Rome, the former centre of the pagan realm. He transferred his capital to the East, to the city of Byzantium, which also was renamed Constantinople [“Constantinopolis” means “the city of Constantine”]. Constantine was deeply convinced that only the Christian religion could unify the immense Roman empire with its diverse peoples. He supported the Church in every way, he brought back from banishment the Christian confessors, he built churches, and he showed concern for the clergy. The emperor deeply revered the victory-bearing Sign of the Cross of the Lord, and he wanted also to find the actual Life-Creating Cross, upon which was crucified our Lord Jesus Christ. For this purpose he dispatched to Jerusalem his own mother – the holy Empress Helen – granting manifold plenitude of power and material means. Together with the Jerusalem Patriarch Makarios, Saint Helen set about the search, and through the Will of God the Life-Creating Cross was discovered in a miraculous manner in the year 326.
Situated in Palestine, the holy empress did much of benefit for the Church. She gave orders that all places connected with the earthly life of the Lord and His All-Pure Mother should be freed of all traces of paganism, and she commanded that churches should be built at these places of memory. Over the Cave of the Sepulchre of the Lord the emperor Constantine himself gave orders to construct a magnificent church to the glory of the Resurrection of Christ. Saint Helen gave the Life-Creating Cross to the Patriarch for safe-keeping, and part of the Cross she took with her for the emperor. Having distributed generous alms at Jerusalem and seeing to the feeding of the needy, during which times she herself attended them, the holy Empress Helen returned to Constantinople, where she soon after died in the year 327.
For her great services to the Church and her efforts in finding the Life-Creating Cross, the empress Helen is titled “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”
The peaceful state of the Christian Church was rent by the rise from within the Church by dissensions and quarrels from heresies which had appeared. Already at the beginning of the emperor Constantine’s reign there had arisen in the West the heresies of the Donatists and the Novatians, demanding a second baptism over those who lapsed during the times of the persecutions against Christians. These heresies, repudiated by two local Church councils, were finally condemned at the Milan Council of 316. But particularly ruinous for the Church was the rise in the East of the heresy of Arius, daring to repudiate the Divine Essence of the Son of God, and teaching that Jesus Christ was a mere creature. By order of the emperor, in the year 325 there was convened the First Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicea. At this Council were gathered 318 bishops. Among its participants were confessor-bishops from the period of the persecutions and many other luminaries of the Church, among whom was Sainted-hierarch Nicholas of Myra in Lycia. The emperor was present at the sessions of the Council. The heresy of Arius was condemned and a Symbol-Creed of Faith compiled, in which was included the term “of One-Essence with the Father,” always confirming in the consciousness of Orthodox Christians the truth of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, Who took on and assumed upon Himself human nature for the redemption of all the human race.
The deep churchly awareness and feeling of Saint Constantine might possibly surprise one, where the working-out of the definition “of One-Essence” heard by him in the disputes of the Council, was at his insistence included within the Symbol-Creed of Faith.
After the Council of Nicea, Saint Constantine continued with his active role in the welfare of the Church. He accepted holy Baptism at the end of his life, having prepared for it all his whole life. Saint Constantine died on the day of Pentecost in the year 337 and was buried in the church of the Holy Apostles, in a crypt earlier prepared by him.