In many ways today’s This Day In… still has resonance even though it happened more than 1700 years ago. Today, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Helena returned to Constantinople with a piece of the True Cross. The long term importance of this event could not have been foreseen. Helena’s act of devotion was fundamental in establishing the importance of Jerusalem within the Christian cosmology.
When Titus’ forces razed the city in 70 AD, Christians had already begun to diverge from their Jewish roots, no longer seeing themselves as an outgrowth of Judaism. Instead, led by Pauline rhetoric, Christians regarded themselves as the end point of Judaism and that the church had now replaced the synagogue. Thus the destruction of Jerusalem was one more factor in the split between Christianity and Judaism. For nearly 250 years, Jerusalem was of minor importance in the Christian world view.
This changed when Helena undertook a tour of the Holy Land in order to visit the place where Jesus had lived and died. Along her route, she dedicated a church on every spot thought to be associated with Jesus’ life. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most famous of these churches. So influential was Helena’s conviction of the locations of associated with the events in the New Testament that even today many of the faithful take it for gospel that those areas are lined up with the biblical account.
As with any tourist (and tourism was not all that different even in the 4th century), Helena brought back with her souvenirs of her trip. But rather than googly eyed sea shells or tacky t shirts, Helena brought back a piece of the True Cross. This was a major development in the history of relics in medieval Europe. Helena’s successful tour also helped place Jerusalem as the centre of the Christian universe, cementing the connection of the imperial capital with the heavenly city.
From the 4th century onward, Jerusalem was no longer a Jewish city, it had become a Christian one. And in many ways, that is still very much the case. The complex history of the Crusades would have been completely different without the notion that Jerusalem was a holy city. Even our modern day attitudes to the Middle East are coloured by our opinions of Jerusalem. Ostensibly to return the Jerusalem to the Jews as a form of reparations for the West’ criminal inaction in the face of the Holocaust, many evangelical groups see this as the precursor for the return of Jesus when the city will be returned to them.