THE CHURCH HAS USED MANY TERMS to describe the saints. Some of these are common to all the historic Churches, such as apostles or martyrs. The Eastern Churches also speak of some saints as “Equal to the Apostles,” believers who were responsible for bringing the Gospel to significant groups of people or nations throughout the world. The first of them were St Mary Magdalene, who announced the resurrection to the dispirited followers of Jesus, and St Thecla, the first woman martyr.
The Church has called Equal to the Apostles those who have been responsible for bringing the Gospel to previously pagan territories, such as Ss Cyril and Methodius and St Clement of Ochrid, who evangelized the Slavs of Moravia and Macedonia during the ninth century. An unlikely evangelist given this title is St Nino, the enlightener of Georgia. The Roman historian Tyrranius Rufinus (c345-410) recounts her story as told him by a Georgian prince. Nino, taken captive during the early fourth century, came to the attention of the queen when a sick child was healed by her prayers. She eventually brought the queen and then the king to Christ. Mass conversions followed.
Among the Equals to the Apostles honored in the Eastern Churches are those rulers who first established or championed the Church in their realms. Chief among them are Ss Constantine and Helena whose feast is observed on May 21.
The Conversion of Constantine
Son of a pagan father and a mother perhaps already sympathetic to Christianity (Helena), Constantine followed a military career like his father, Constanius, who became senior emperor in the West in ad 305. Constantine was then given the military rule of Britain, Gaul and Spain. When Constantius died in 306, Constantine’s troops acclaimed him as his father’s successor. Constantine defeated one challenger after another until becoming sole emperor of both East and West by 324.
During his struggle for control of Rome Constantine had the experience which would transform his future and that of the empire as well. In 312, on the eve of a decisive battle for the city of Rome, Constantine had a dream or vision leading him to inscribe the monogram of Christ (☧) on his soldiers’ shields and standards. His biographer, the Church historian Eusebius tells that the image was accompanied by the message, “with this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine’s troops won the battle and Constantine began the religious transformation of the Roman Empire.
The next year Constantine and Licinius, who controlled part of the Eastern Empire, agreed on a policy of religious toleration, ending the persecution of Christians. Constantine’s victories in the East – and his own adoption of the Christian faith – assured the final end of persecution and the triumph of Christianity as the leading religion in his empire.
Empire and Church Are Transformed
After becoming sole ruler of the empire Constantine embarked on a series of actions which transformed both empire and Church. Most significantly he abolished the division of eastern and western empires, unifying his realm with a new single monetary system as well. He established a new capital, the New Rome, on the site of the ancient town of Byzantium, thus minimizing the influence of the old pagan elite and the shrines with which the Old Rome abounded. The New Rome would eventually take on its founder’s name as Constantinople.
In 325 Constantine embarked on a program to unify the Church as well. He summoned bishops from all over the empire to the First Ecumenical Council (Nicea I) to give it a universally recognized faith and structure. This council would produce the first part of the Symbol of Faith which we recite at every Liturgy to this day. It would also determine the regional primacies of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch as well as unify the date for celebrating Pascha. Later councils would complete the creed and establish the five major primacies of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
Focus on the Holy Land
Besides erecting a great church (St Peter’s) in Old Rome, Constantine strove to renew Palestine as a “Holy Land.” After the Jewish revolt in AD 135 the city had been closed to Jews by the Emperor Hadrian and maintained as a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian had built a Roman temple over the site of the Lord’s tomb and maintained pagan worship there.
Constantine appointed his mother Helena as Empress, and put the imperial treasury at her disposal to adorn the Christian holy places. In 326-328 Helena journeyed to Palestine where she built the Churches of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Eleona on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives to commemorate Christ’s ascension. She had Hadrian’s temple destroyed and began the construction of the Church of the Resurrection. During the excavation three crosses were unearthed and, according to fourth century sources, Helena identified the Lord’s cross when a sick woman was healed by touching it. Helena brought part of the cross to Old Rome and enshrined it is her palace which is now the Basilica of the Holy Cross.
St Helena is also credited with establishing churches on Mount Sinai (site of St Catherine’s Monastery), and in Cyprus (site of the Stavrovouni Monastery). She reposed in 328/329 and was buried near St. Peter’s in Old Rome.
Other rulers celebrated as Equals of the Apostles are St Boris I, ninth century ruler of Bulgaria and Ss Vladimir and Olga, tenth century rulers of Kievan Rus, who spearheaded the Christianization of their respective lands.
From the Vespers of the Feast
You gave Your precious Cross as a most powerful weapon to the emperor. Through it he reigned righteously on earth, shining with godliness. And in Your compassion he was counted worthy of Your heavenly kingdom. Therefore with him we glorify Your dispensation, almighty Jesus, Savior of our souls and Lover of mankind.
As the King of kings, the Lord who reigns over all, You, O Lover of mankind, granted Your servant the wisdom of Solomon, the meekness of David and the Orthodox faith of the apostles. Therefore we glorify Your dispensation, almighty Jesus, Savior of our souls and Lover of mankind.
You received the scepter from God, O Constantine, first emperor of Christians, when the hidden symbol of salvation appeared to you on earth. Having the life-giving cross as an invincible weapon, O blessed saint, you brought all the nations to the feet of Rome and you yourself were led to God.
With longing and love for Christ, the mother of a sweet offspring made haste to come to holy Zion, to the sacred place where our Savior was crucified in His desire to save us. Raising the cross there, she cried, rejoicing: Glory to Him who has given me what I desired!