After Constantine became sole emperor in 324 when he defeated Licinius, He saw the Christian Faith as a binding element for the Empire. Consequently he called the Council of Nicaea, presides over by himself and attended by c. 318 bishops. One of those bishops was the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Bishop Makarios. He told Helena about the dilapidated state of Jerusalem's holy places, and especially those sites associated with the significant events in Jesus' life.
Helena thus came to the holy city, anxious to discover those sights associated with the main events in Christ's life. Her first desire was to discover the place of the crucifixion and the actual cross on which our Saviour died. An old Jew told her that the Holy Cross was buried beneath the temple built in honour of Venus by Hadrian in 119 AD. So she had the temple torn down, and to her amazement three wooden crosses lay there. But which one was the Holy Cross?
Patriarch Makarios ordered that the crosses be placed on a dead man about to be buried. When the Cross of Christ was placed upon him he immediately came to life. With great joy both St. Helena and the Patriarch lifted up the Holy Cross for the people to venerate, upon which they all fell to their knees, crying out repeatedly, Kryie eleison.
St. Helena had the church of the Anastasis or Holy sepulchre as we to-day know it, built on this site which was eventually consecrated on 13th September, 335 (after her death), and the finding of, and the exaltation of the Cross were appointed to be celebrated annually on the following day. The Cross was encased in the church until it was looted by the Persians in 614.
Fourteen years later, Emperor Heraclius made peace with the Persians and the Holy Cross was returned to him. Instead of returning it to Jerusalem he brought it to the imperial capital of Constantinople in an impressive ceremony. Taking off his shoes and imperial robes, he carried the Cross into Agia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) where it was once again triumphantly exalted to all present to venerate. From 628 this feast of exalting and venerating the Holy Cross has been kept by the West as well as the East.
The original church built by St. Helena in conjunction with the Patriarch was surrounded by columns and domed over by a rotunda, the predecessor of the rotunda in the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Golgotha was left in an open courtyard; while the basilica was built east of it for services. It was approached by a flight of stairs ending before three great doors. This basilica was unlike other Christian churches as it faced the West and not the East. The building was decorated lavishly in marble, gold and mosaics, while the capitals of the twelve columns surrounding the Sepulchre were of pure silver.
St. Helena's Church is not the church we see standing to-day, even though it did not suffer much destruction until 1009 A.D., when it was almost entirely demolished under the orders of Caliph al-Hakim, the Fatimid ruler of Egypt at that time. This demolition was one of the reasons given for the initiation of the Crusades. Soon after the church was desecrated rebuilding was initiated under the authorization of the new Caliph. About 30 years later the Crusaders captured Jerusalem and the church was further restored and rebuilt and dedicated in 1149. In 1187, when Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin the church was left intact. The church suffered two further catastrophes, the first by fire and the next by earthquake at the beginning of the 19th century and in 1927 respectively.
St. Helena with the Patriarch was also responsible for finding the cave where Christ was born in Bethlehem, again with the help of local people who told her of the cave of Christ (pbuh) at the end of the village. Here builders were able to construct the shape of the cave according to architectural and devotional requirements. The cave was encased by an octagonal structure forming the sanctuary of the basilica, which stretched away to the west in five aisles divided by four rows of monolithic columns. It was richly decorated with mosaics, frescoes and marbles, while a silver manger replaced the original clay manger.
The present Church was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. In 529, the Samaritans revolted, and the Church of the Nativity was badly damaged. The Patriarch of Jerusalem sent St. Sabas to Justinian for help who ordered the church's demolition, and a new construction designed by his architect. New soil covered the mosaic floor built in 326, and a new pavement was laid at a higher level. When the Crusaders came in the 12th Century, they built a cloister and monastery around the north side of the Church.
Yet another restoration project took place between 1165 and 1169, in coordination between the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish Kingdom. The reparations took place all over the Church, covering many of the walls and the floors with marble; mosaic and mother-of-pearl. The pillars are from the white-veined red stone of the area, and are Corinthian is style. The cedar wood roof was covered with lead; the Grotto walls were laid with marble and mosaic covered the walls in the Grotto, and the two entrances received their present form.
To-day the facade of the Church of the Nativity is encircled by the high walls of the three convents: the Franciscan on the northeast side, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox, on the southeast side. The facade had three doors, two of which are walled up. The present low entrance which leads into the narthex, was made at the beginning of the 16th century, in order to prevent the entrance of horses into the building. This narthex is divided into three compartments, and a single wooden door gives access to the interior. The Basilica is 53.9m long, the nave is 26.2m wide, and the transept is 35.82m.
The other church associated with St. Helena is the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives to mark the place of the Ascension, also built in 326 A.D. This stands above the grotto where, according to tradition, Jesus taught the disciples, including the Lord's Prayer.
The pilgrim Arculepus wrote:
On the whole Mount of Olives there is no higher place than that from which our Lord ascended to heaven, a place where there is today a round church surrounded by three rows of pillars all standing under one roof. The inside of the church is not covered by a roof and is open to the sky... Thus, the place from which the Lord soared aloft in a cloud is not covered by a roof, so that all the worshippers who stand in the place where the divine footprints were lately seen can pray to the heavens above them.
Perhaps too the church of the Annunciation in Nazareth over the grotto where the angel addressed Mary as she was drawing water is the original work of St. Helena's encouragement as it too was built in the 4th century.
The importance of these places of worship is gathered from the diary of Egeria, a nun on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, c. 385 when the famous Cyril was Patriarch, some 60 years after Helena's time in Jerusalem.
"Every day before cockcrow all the doors of the Anastasis are opened, and all the monks and virgins, as they call them here, go thither, and not they alone, but lay people also, both men and women, who desire to begin their vigil early. And from that hour to daybreak hymns are said and psalms are sung responsively (responduntur), and antiphons in like manner; and prayer is made after each of the hymns. For priests, deacons, and monks in twos or threes take it in turn every day to say prayers after each of the hymns or antiphons.
But when day breaks they begin to say the Matin hymns. Thereupon the bishop arrives with the clergy, and immediately enters into the cave, and from within the rails (cancelli) he first says a prayer for all, mentioning the names of those whom he wishes to commemorate; he then blesses the catechumens, afterwards he says a prayer and blesses the faithful. And when the bishop comes out from within the rails, every one approaches his hand, and he blesses them one by one as he goes out, and the dismissal takes place, by daylight."
There is a similar procedure for the other offices of the day and evening.
At Epiphany Octave
I "In Bethlehem also throughout the entire eight days the feast is celebrated with similar festal array and joyfulness daily by the priests and by all the clergy there, and by the monks who are appointed in that place. For from the hour when all return by night to Jerusalem with the bishop, the monks of that place keep vigil in the church in Bethlehem, reciting hymns and antiphons, but it is necessary that the bishop should always keep these days in Jerusalem. And immense crowds, not of monks only, but also of the laity, both men and women, flock together to Jerusalem from every quarter for the solemn and joyous observance of that day."
"The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him,-- treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which His parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place."
Egeria also described in great detail the keeping of the eight weeks of Lent with great solemnity in these holy places, culminating with the events of Holy week. It was a time of great involvement in the liturgies, not only in the Anastasis but also in the church of Eleona. On Palm Sunday, for example, all met on the Mt. of Olives for the procession into Jerusalem.
The early Church owes a lot to St. Helena who at an elderly age became a pilgrim to Jerusalem to see the sites associated with the life of her blessed Lord. Overcoming all the obstacles, she has left posterity with what we to-day call the traditional sites of our Lord's life. From her own desire to worship at these sacred sites, she with her son Constantine, built beautiful churches to help Christians never to forget that God came into the world to save us.
Helena died in 330 A.D. and was buried in Rome. Her feast day is 18th August in the West and 21st May in the East. The island in the Atlantic we know as St. Helena, was so named as Spanish sailors discovered it on her feast day.