Women Saints: Their Lives and Example for Us Today
Sermon preached by Arianna Krinos Quinn on Sunday, March 13, 2022, the Sunday of Orthodoxy
Saints Helen Augusta and Theodora the Armenian: Stewards of the Byzantine Heritage of the Orthodox Christian Faith
I am so honored to be speaking on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of the season of Great Lent in our church. Reflecting upon the meaning that this day takes on, I thought the best place to start was the Holy Cross, the symbol of the Passion that we look towards for the whole of Great Lent.
St. Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, is one of the better-known female saints in the church, and was a devout Christian. Among many accomplishments, one of the more poignant is her likely influence on Emperor Constantine’s decision to end the oppression of Christians in the Roman Empire via the Edict of Milan.
St. Helen is also often credited with the discovery of the Holy Cross more than 300 years after Christ’s crucifixion. While it is unclear whether St. Helen herself made the discovery, it is verified that her pilgrimage to the Holy Land led to the construction of multiple Christian churches at the places of Jesus’s birth and resurrection. She stayed to do humanitarian work in Jerusalem and the other places that Christ called home.
As the story goes, St. Helen had to order a pagan temple to be demolished in order to find the Tomb of Christ and the Cross, and in the following days and years, St. Helen would prioritize eradicating paganism in the region. I never understood why paganism would need to be eradicated in a place where Jesus had grown up as a Jew a few hundred years prior. As it turns out, this temple was originally constructed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138. Hadrian actually made himself the object of worship in the larger Temple of Jupiter that he built nearby, and it turns out that he had promised Jews that lived there a return of the Jewish temple. Instead, he built a shrine to himself and to the pagan gods. As a receipt for this, an unsuccessful war of rebellion was initiated by the Jewish people in 132. Hence, St. Helen’s mission to remove the relatively new pagan temples was a vindication of the oppressed as much as it was a restorative force in the Christian world and the catalyst for the discovery of the Cross. In the wake, several octagonal churches were built in the vicinity in the year A.D. 325, one of which was the Church of Mary’s Rock. This church was erected around a six-foot diameter stone on which Mary is purported to have rested enroute to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus, according to early church lore. It took the determination and faith of St. Helen, the mother of an emperor, to restore a Christian presence to Christ’s birthplace and to honor the place where His mother once journeyed. The Church of Mary’s Rock, which was excavated about 25 years ago, is adorned in unique olive and palm mosaics, two important themes from the life of Christ that feature prominently in the Lenten and Paschal seasons.
St. Helen died of natural causes, and in 1211 her remains were transferred to Venice. By legend, the ship arrived in the Venice lagoon while transporting the remains, but hit bottom and would not move. The sailors emptied the ship of all the cargo to get it to float again, then replaced St. Helen’s remains once it was floating. With just her remains, it hit the bottom again, and the sailors deduced that this should be St. Helen’s final resting place, per her implied jurisdiction. The church where she lies today is a pilgrimage site for mothers in honor of this special early mother in the Christian church. As a positive demonstration of the potential for goodwill and reconciliation between today’s Christian churches, the relics of St. Helen went on tour to the Orthodox church of Agia Varvara in Athens for a month in 2017.
The female saint perhaps more intrinsically tied to the Sunday of Orthodoxy is the Empress Theodora, who became a saint for protecting the practice of the veneration of icons in the church during an 843 Synod. A canonical example of female strength during a time in which women were rarely permitted to lead, Theodora the Blessed ruled as a regent for her son after her husband, Theophilos, died young from dysentery and her son - the heir to the throne - was only two years old. Though her husband was an iconoclast in support of the second Byzantine period of iconoclasm, his wife Theodora was decidedly not. Though it isn’t known whether Theophilos knew how Theodora felt about icons, he fiercely defended her right to lead on his deathbed, a contributing factor to Theodora’s later coronation and largely independent rule. Both Theophilos and Theodora were fierce defenders of their daughters in addition to their surviving son, and their eldest daughter even ruled as a regent alongside Theodora and their son Michael. Theodora made it clear that she indeed had the agency to rule, and remained independent during her 13-year reign, during which time she secured the role of icons as a central part of the Orthodox faith and established the tradition of a procession of icons in the church of Agia Sophia.
Icons were always portrayed to me as “windows to heaven” during my upbringing in the Orthodox Church, a perspective I owe to the Empress Theodora. Beyond their function in facilitation of worship and prayer, I learned the role of icons early on from excellent teachers as a means to understand, and to visually “read”, Scripture. I also learned about the enjoinment of the icons themselves for the beholder to strive towards the holy lives of the depicted. My perspective was shaped by my godmother Sister Theopisti, who chose to enter religious life shortly after my baptism, and sends me a letter every year on my Name Day that describes the daily operations of the nuns at St. John Chrysostomos Monastery. She writes about the prayerful journey of iconography and the daily dedication of the nuns to the spiritual act of icon painting. The constant prayers of my godmother and many other nuns for me and all of us are a blessing invigorated by the practice of iconography. The icons they paint are sent to many homes and churches, including the two from my godmother that hang in our home.
Saint Helen and Saint Theodora lived in dramatically different times and took very different approaches towards the protection of the Orthodox Christian faith. They share their motherhood and the strong and active role that they took in both the upbringing of their children and the state: political and religious. Their decisive actions and recognition of aspects of Orthodoxy that today ground us in the spirituality of our faith secured the Orthodox Church that we participate in today. They have earned their reputation as important church mothers: they remind us how delicate and dynamic our faith was even hundreds of years after Christ’s Resurrection, and how important it is that we continue to protect it in 2022.