Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
November 09, 2012
It’s not often, especially for us in the United States with our relatively brief history, that we have a chance to celebrate a 1,700th anniversary.
When we look back millennia, we can normally pinpoint years when momentous events occurred, but it’s a very rare thing when we’re able to specify an actual day on which something happened. That points, however, to the special significance of what took place on Oct. 28, 312: the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, one of the most important battles in world history and an event of particular significance for Christians.
Since the time I became a guide to the Vatican necropolis and St. Peter’s Basilica as a seminarian, and needed to tell the story of the battle as background for the building of the basilica, the date has always been special for me. I had Oct. 28, 2012 circled on my calendar for more than 15 years!
In 312, the Roman Empire was basically divided into four parts, but the dominant emperors were Constantine in the northern and western parts and Maxentius in Rome. Even though Constantine was married to Maxentius’ sister, Fausta, Constantine and Maxentius were not able to coexist amicably and eventually hostility grew to such a degree that they declared war on each other.
Constantine and his armies started the march toward Rome, annihilating Maxentius’ garrisons in the north and central parts of Italy. But Constantine was too brilliant a military strategist not to realize that in order to defeat Maxentius, he needed to take Rome — and he could not see how that would be possible.
Forty years before, Rome had been surrounded by impregnable city walls the likes of which the ancient world had never seen. Not only was there no way at the time to penetrate them, but they also enclosed so much farmland and so many underground aquifers that there really was no way to siege Rome. Two famous military generals had already tried and failed. Maxentius was happy to remain within the city walls for as long as it took, and Constantine didn’t have anyone on the inside whom he could somehow get to open the gates.
But then something miraculous happened. On October 27, as Constantine and his troops were about six miles north of the center of Rome near a place called Saxa Rubra (“Red Rocks”), he and his soldiers looked into the sky and saw an image.
Two contemporary historians, the Latin Lactantius and the Greek Eusebius, present the image in slightly different ways, but, taken together, what was seen was what would look in our alphabet as a capital P with a horizontal bar cutting across the stem of the P about half way up. Lactantius focused on the sign being in the form of a Cross. Eusebius said it was the first two letters of the title Christ in Greek, the letterChi (the CH in Greek, which looks like an X, formed by the intersection of the vertical and horizontal bars) and a Rho (the Greek letter “R,” which looks like a capital P in our alphabet, seen at the top of the vertical bar). Underneath this sign, Eusebius tells us, Constantine saw the expression, En touto nika, which translated from the Greek means, “In this, victory.”
Constantine was not a Christian at this point and wondered what the apparition meant. In a dream later that night, he was instructed to place that sign on the shields and standards of his army, which he did the following day. Eusebius candidly admits that if he hadn’t heard the story directly from Constantine’s own lips, it would have been hard for him to believe it. This adds to the historical reliability of the accounts.
Something then occurred that Constantine considered even more miraculous than the sign itself. Maxentius, spurred on it seems by a pagan prophecy that on his anniversary of becoming emperor the enemies of the Romans would perish, decided to leave the security of the impregnable walls of Rome and accompany his troops toward Saxa Rubra, where they crossed the Tiber River at the Milvian Bridge. A fierce battled ensued. Eventually Constantine’s cavalry and soldiers began to have the upper hand. Maxentius sought to flee via the Milvian Bridge, but because previously he had the bridge partially destroyed to prevent Constantine from crossing the Tiber, he didn’t make it. He and many of his retreating soldiers were killed in the Tiber. Surrounded by his ebullient troops, Constantine entered the city of Rome and was acclaimed emperor of the West.
Constantine wanted to thank the Christian God who had given him the miraculous sign and led him to a previously inconceivable military victory.
The first thing he decided to do — the least he could do! — was to eliminate the law that made it a crime punishable by death for Christians to worship the God Who had given him that wondrous sign in the heavens. He did it with his famous Edict of Milan the following year, in which he extended religious freedom to the Christians and ended a period of 250 years of persecution and martyrdom. Christianity wouldn’t become the official religion of the Roman empire until the end of the fourth century, but it now became possible to practice the faith freely.
The second thing he did — now that Christianity was legal and Christians were coming in great numbers to the holy places without fear — was to build basilicas in which Christians could worship adequately. He sent his mother, St. Helen, to the Holy Land where, with the imperial building crews, she had churches built where Jesus was born, where He died and rose again, and where He ascended. In Rome, Constantine had five churches built, over the tombs of St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Agnes, at the Catacombs, and in the Lateran, where he constructed a cathedral and a palace for the pope over the place where Maxentius had formerly housed his equestrian stables.
Constantine would also help out the Church in another way, convening the first ecumenical Council in Nicaea (Turkey) in 325, in order to combat and eliminate the Arian heresy that was disputing Christ’s Divinity and dividing the Church.
But all of this began 1,700 years ago with a sign in the heavens — the sign of the Cross together with the name Christ and an expression, “by this (sign), victory” — that led to a totally unexpected triumph.
As we ponder Tuesday’s election results, it’s important for us to do so with not only the eyes of faith that Christ and the Cross leads to victory, but also with an historical consciousness of what has happened before us. The Church, after 250 years of brutal on-and-off-again persecution, after 250 years of regular crucifixion, experienced liberation and resurrection by the sign of Christ and His Cross.
Let’s mark, not our military standards and shields, but our minds and hearts with this sign of victory and march on with confidence and serenity, knowing, with gratitude, that the same Christ Who took on our human nature and entered our history in Palestine, the same Lord Who intervened 1,700 years ago in the heavens and on the ground, remains with us still. By the same sign, with Him, we will conquer, too.