A Message from Father Nick 14

CONSTANTINE (1) A significant dream…

Today’s painting reminds us of a dream which had enormous importance for the Church. Piero della Francesca painted this fresco in the fifteenth century to show the soldier Constantine asleep before his decisive battle for the city of Rome. In his dream Constantine received direct inspiration from God – or so he would later tell the story.

We are familiar with the notion of a persecuted early Church and also with the names of many of its martyrs (the first Eucharistic prayer gives us a brief catalogue of famous men and women)). At first Christianity was regarded as a threat to the very stability of Rome, but by the beginning of the fourth century something was beginning to change.

Constantine had already been influenced by the cult of a single sun-god, “Sol Invictus”, and he had come to a decisive moment in his life. At stake was the future of the Roman Empire. On the night of October 27th 312 AD, he was preparing to do battle with his rival Maxentius. Their two armies were about to fight at the Milvian Bridge on the outskirts of Rome.

Details vary, but as the story would be told by Lactantius and Constantine’s friend Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine saw in the sky a vision of Christ’s symbol – either the Cross or the “CHI-RHO” sign (the first Greek letters of the name Christ, which look like a combined X and P). And with it were the words, “In this sign conquer”.

Constantine did of course conquer. The rest as they say is history. Now instead of an oppressor, the Church had found an enthusiastic supporter, and its place in society changed accordingly. Crucifixion was banned; Sunday was made the official day of rest; the tombs of Peter and Paul were honoured with beautiful buildings; part of Constantine’s own family land was given to make the cathedral church of Rome, St John Lateran…  And the Church found itself forced to face a new challenge: no longer the threat of persecution, but the responsibility of managing power and wealth.

For all his support, Constantine did not rush to be baptised. Hoping to die in baptismal purity, he took his chance and waited. He received the sacrament just before he died in May 337, twenty-five years after his dream.