A History of the Saint
Today marks the feast of St. Constantine. Yes you heard correctly: “Saint”.
Even my Catholic friends flinch when they hear Saint or Great included into the Emperor’s name. To be fair, I’m aware of the religious and historical scandals that cause these sort of reactions. Being baptized on his death bed by Arian clergy after the council he founded–that fought against Arianism–comes across as jarring, and the accounts of the execution of his son and wife are also head-scratching matters to say the least–though ancient and modern history can’t seem to agree on why the execution was ordered.
And yet, for a man steeped in brutal Roman politics and culture, his life in such a context is still remarkable and his acts of generosity were brave and counter-cultural.
The tale of Constantine’s life is a rather heroic one, a story of a littleman ascending to leadership, a story of chaste virtue blossoming into reform of a misled empire.
The makings of a hero
Constantine was born in the humble parts of the Balkans, in modern-day serbia. His father was a well-to-do Roman officer who ended up becoming an imperial guard for the emperor before finally ascending to tetrarch; Rome had become so large that the single ruler of Rome divided the responsibility of rulership to four leaders instead of one. Constantine’s mother was a Greek of low-estate, seemingly utilized as his interpreter for a short period of time before Constantine’s father moved for his promotion. Though the father and son would be reunited once Constantine himself embarked on his military career, Constantine and his blessed mother Helen were left to fend mostly for their own in these formative years.
Constantine was fortunate to have a father of high-esteem in the eyes of room, and because of this received a rich education in Nicomedia. The Christian formation he received from his mother was built upon as Constantine received education not only from Greek/Roman pagans but also from Christians philosophers living in that area. What may have also factored into Constantine’s inclination towards Christianity was his knowledge of the Diocletian persecution of Christians during his military career under Diocletian.
Constantine came to power upon his father’s death, ruling as tetrarch to the North Western quadrant of the empire. This was not an easy governance as the far reaches of Rome here were constantly being tested by Picts and Franks among other developing tribes and groups in northwest europe. In this time of defending his post from these constant threats, Constantine endeavored to repair roads and began ambitious building projects in this Roman frontier. It’s incredible to imagine how a leader constantly under threat can still set his eyes on a vision of building and connecting, embodying both bravery and creativity.
en touto nika
Constantine’s rise to tetrarch happened to be one more tumultuous wave into the political strife already brewing in the Roman tetrarchy. Rome become a six ring circus of disputed leadership, a divided empire, in need of vision and order.
Constantine’s greatest enemy, Maxentius, felt threatened by Constantine’s position in power and had preemptively declared war on Constantine. Constantine carved a war path in response and after his first few victories into Italy was received well by the Italian-Roman population.
Constantine arrived to meet Maxentius and his army at the Tiber River outnumbered 2:1. What rallied Constnatine and his men was a vision, a dream he had before the battle of a sign in the sky. There are different reports if the sign in the sky was that of a Cross or the letters “Chi” and “Rho” (the first two letters of Christ’s name), but the message in this dream was simple: in this, conquer. It was Constantine’s blessing from heaven, a defining moment in Christian history that would allow for the Church and her faithful to regroup, rebuild, and be sent out.
Constnatine won the battle and won the heart of Rome. Henceforth, Constantine not only put an end to Roman persecution of Christianity, but became a patron to it. Constantine personally funded building projects for Christian churches, funded his mother’s venture to seek out the True Cross of Christ, and funded the Church’s First Eccumenical Council, allowing all bishops of the Christian world to convene and sort out the canon of Scripture and seal the tenants of the faith and who Christ is: God and Man, eternally begotten, Son of God.
an imperfect saint
Where we get uncomfortable hearing Constantine’s name is when we hear stories of the execution of his son and wife. The testimonies conflict as to what exactly happened here, and there doesn’t seem to be one clear narrative of motive or even culprit. We also tend to put Constantine under a lens for his death-bed baptism at the hands of an Arian bishop–a bishop that the 1st Eccumenical Council had deemed heretical in the professed belief that Christ was created and not Son of God.
Perhaps Constantine’s life does not quite stack up to the great contemporary saints of his time: St. Nicholas, St. Spyridon, St Athanasius, etc. That being said, the Christians we think of at that time were ordained hierarchs not set on a track of public servitude and a military career. Though we might point to the lives of St. George and St. Dimitrios as being chaste military saints that have perhaps a cleaner record than Constantine, perhaps we could keep in perspective the temptations that came with leadership at the time. As we consider King David and King Solomon, both elect by God who fell into their own temptations, perhaps too we can consider how human Constantine was, and the humility of his desire to be baptized at the end of his life knowing what hard decisions he might end up regretting to make.
a patron we need today
But why mention all this? Merely because his memory is kept today? Merely because I bear his name?
The highlights and honorable parts of Constantine’s life I think are fairly topical to the needs of today.
I see a young man who is educated not merely by one side of the aisle, but knowledgeable of both (in his case, pagan and Christian).
I see a man who in spite of having a distant parent still honors him and seeks training and admonishment (he had a distant father).
I see a man who in the face of hostility meets adversity with courage and more importantly with faith, bowing before not his own resources or understanding, but on God’s authority (the battle at the bridge).
I see a man who supports the pilgrimage, the journeys of faith, of others, endorsing their ventures to finding salvation (His mother and the Cross).
I see a man humble and willing to accept he is likely to sin grievously, and nonetheless seeks out a path of salvation for himself, not considering it hypocrisy to devote himself to Christ at the end, but to crave salvation after lamenting a lifetime of sin (his baptism).
I see a man who puts forth the resources to foster dialog and unity, to foster a setting of discussion to make us one, to allow for our ideas to contest in the coliseum of the world coming together (the first council).
I see a man who values the patronage of arts, of wholesome art, that can reshape society and further lead others to God. Above all, I see Constantine’s philanthropy to Christian architecture and art as needed today: we need patrons of beauty that direct our eyes not on our egos and idols, but towards the heavens that humble us, to the God that created us and saved us.
May we find more Constantine’s that will lead us in an example of courage, of dialog, and of beauty, helping reorient our eyes to the sign waiting for us in the heavens that ultimately shows us the salvific power of God.
By the intercessions of he and his mother, may our art and our speech be sharpened by the Lord Almighty.