On May 21 the Orthodox Church commemorates the life of an unlikely saint. He grew up as the illegitimate son of the second in command of the western part of the Roman Empire. He lived his life in military camps and finally became the sole ruler of the civilized world. He was not baptized until his deathbed. His name is Constantine, and the Orthodox Church knows him as a “God-crowned King” and an “Equal to the Apostles.”
Constantine is one of those rare people who actually change the course of history. This year, 2013, is the 1700th anniversary of the so-called Edict of Milan. In 313 Constantine, the ruler of the western part of the Roman Empire, met with Licinius, the ruler of the Balkans, in Milan and came to an agreement to recognize Christianity as a legitimate religion. In this way, they brought an end to the two-century-long persecution of Christians and confiscated property was returned.
Constantine, however, went well beyond the provisions of the agreement and showed distinct favor to the young religion. Although he had been raised as a pagan and was a worshipper of the Unconquered Sun, he was also familiar with Christianity through his Christian mother Helena. Beyond that, however, Constantine, like St. Paul before him, saw a vision which changed his life. As he faced his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he saw a vision of the Cross in the sky with the promise of victory: In this Sign, Conquer! Constantine had the Chi Rho (the first two letters of the name Christos) put on the soldiers shields, and he defeated Maxentius. As a result, he showed favor to Christianity, even surrounding himself with Christian bishops as his advisers.
Two important events cemented Constantine’s association with Christianity. First of all, in response to a heresy which was tearing apart the empire, he summoned a council of all the bishops throughout the world in the imperial city of Nicaea in 325. When the bishops gathered, there were many confessors who had suffered severely during the persecutions. Constantine went to each of them, and the ruler of the civilized world knelt before them and kissed their wounds. This council eventually produced the Nicene Creed which many churches still recite in liturgical gatherings.
Secondly, Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the small Greek town, Byzantium, by the Black Sea. This move would bring the center of governmental power more to the center of the Roman world. Constantine reestablished all the institutions of government, including the Senate, in the new city, with one major difference: in order to be a member of the government, it was necessary to be a Christian. The old, pagan Senate continued to meet in Rome but lost its influence. In this way, Constantine founded the first Christian city and government.
Although Constantine’s favoring of Christianity was a two-edged sword, attracting many people whose only interest in the faith was its ability to give entrance to a political career, it certainly changed history. Constantine saw himself as an instrument of God’s will, and we remember and celebrate his role in the history of salvation.
Fr. Constantine Newman is the pastor of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Newburyport.