Part 2: St. Helena’s Rediscovery
Hagiographies and Miracle Tales,
Written c. 400
WHEN THE EMPEROR Constantine, guided by the sign in the heavens to victory over the enemies of Christ at the Milvian Bridge, legalized our holy faith, it was as if the world was born again. In this new dispensation of grace, churches sprang up like wildflowers. The heroes of the faith were honored with splendid chapels; the temples of the old gods were consecrated to the true God and his mother. And in his inspired wisdom, the Emperor did vow to found a new and Christian Rome and endow it with a great Temple of God such had not been seen since Solomon’s day.
And the mother of our Emperor, the devout and saintly Helena, who led him to the faith, was empowered by her son to seek out the treasures of the Church to grace the new home of God. And so to the Holy Land she came, looking for the sacred sites and holy things that testify to the truth of Christ and the patriarchs.
The Lord blessed her coming. It was a foretaste of the day of resurrection, when the dead will burst from their tombs, the way the monks and holy men swarmed out of the desert at the report of her approach. They brought forth treasures old and new, as the Scripture say, many not heard of for centuries, and many others never spoken of before now. They and eagerly guided her to the sacred places where Our Lord lived and died and those of the patriarchs and kings before him.
Many places had been defiled, destroyed by the pagans, and with temples of their false gods replacing or covering holy shrines or tombs. But the Christians remembered in their hearts, and were not ashamed to mark those blasphemous monuments, more often than the authorities could clean them. Thus were these sacred sites preserved.
Many priceless relics of Christ’s suffering were produced from holes where they had long been hidden. The holy cross itself was found, with the nails that pierced his sacred hands and feet, the ropes that bound him, even the seamless garment that his mother wove, and countless other sacred tokens besides.
Alas, many frauds were presented as holy things as well. The stories and rumors had to be carefully weighed, and many bore no fruit. Often the absurdity of the claim would suffice to discredit it, sometimes discrepancies were obvious, but not even philosophers could discern the truth about others. For those, the wise men devised cunning tests.
Finally, hearing of the Holy Tub, the Empress Helena herself came to Antioch. It took not only the patriarch of that city but the bishops of Tyre and Damascus to persuade the holy monk Gregorios, appointed Keeper of the Holy Basin, to come down off the high mountain and meet with her. Expecting martyrdom, it took even longer for him to agree to produce the basin. But eventually, realizing that the Empress was indeed a true Christian, he submitted.
Accompanied by the holy virgins and widows keeping watch, Gregorios brought it down off of the high place in as elaborate a procession as their poverty could devise.
To verify that it was indeed the Most Holy Footbath, a harmless test was done. Her chief advisor, the saintly bishop Macarius, had proposed it based on the very method he had devised that had shown which of the crosses found was the one Our Lord hung upon.
Wise Macarius had the Sacred Tub and two others put in a room and covered with cloths. Only then were the Empress and her advisors let into the room. No one present knew which one was the Sacred Basin. Though troubled with a swollen left big toe, Empress Helena was asked to walk past the tubs. As she slowly hobbled past the one true Holy Tub, the pain in her great toe suddenly ceased.
She pushed her assistants away, and threw away her cane. Old Gregorios was brought in and the tubs unveiled. The hermit fell to his knees praising God that He had confirmed the True Holy Footbath of Christ with this mighty miracle for the Empress, and the others joined him. But even as the sainted Bernice had, the old woman capered as sprightly before Christ’s ark as young David did before that of the Covenant, as if she were young again.
The Holy Tub was confirmed by other signs. Long had it resided in Antioch, and the church there had many testimonies and documents. The Sacred Basin itself bore the signs, for it bore more than just the crack that legends spoke of, but other cracks and repairs. Holy names were scratched into the side, and one lip was worn down by the caresses and kisses of the faithful. And it alone was preserved in a special frame, mute testimony of the tender care long bestowed on it.
Gregorios’ delight soon turned to despair when told that the Empress wanted the Holy Tub for the wonderful church her son was building in the new capital at Byzantium. The women wailed loudly, yet the Empress was quite generous in her bequest. The reluctant hermit became the abbot of the first great imperial monastery of the East, that of the Blessed Toe of Antioch.