St. Helen, Sweet Basil, and the Holy Cross

September 14th marks yet another important Feast Day in the Greek Orthodox Church. It’s the day a woman born in obscurity would find something highly regarded by much of today’s world.

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That woman was St. Helen (in Greek her name is Eleni). She was a Greek woman born into meager means and of no significance. That is until she met and married the Roman Emperor Constantius. Together they would have a son named Constantine (you know, the Great), who later became an Emperor himself. He is noted for being the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, doing so on his deathbed. He also did much to ensure tolerance for Christians and to show his support for the faith, before hand. The city Constantinople was named after him and became the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Saints Helen and Constantine with the Holy Cross.

It was primarily due to his mother’s influence, and his relationship with her, that Constantine the Great carried out these acts. She had converted to Christianity earlier on and encouraged him to do the same. Given his position as ruler of a mostly pagan empire, that likely would not have gone over very well. However, he was all but officially a Christian by then. At one point during his rule, St. Helen decided to set out to discover the location of the Holy Cross, the one upon which Christ was crucified. Constantine (who is also recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church) was also eager to find it and so he put together a group of soldiers and servants to guide and assist her on her journey.

At the time, no one knew exactly where the Cross would be found. What ultimately aided in its discovery was a beautiful aroma wafting through the air. The source of that scent was a patch of basil growing. If you have ever grown basil you will know how very strong that sweet-spicy smell can be. The team began excavating the area below the basil and discovered the remnants of the Holy Cross. There are many other stories associated with how St. Helen knew it to be the true Cross, but it was the presence of the basil that was growing there that aided in her discovery.

The meaning of the name “basil” (in Greek it’s vasilikos) is kingly, royal, brave, or valiant. There is much debate as to how the plant got its name, but one possible explanation was that it was named by St. Helen as a result of it being found growing at the site of the Cross. Christ was, and still is, the King of Kings after all, so it is a fitting name.

This royal and holy connection may help explain why basil is not used much in Greek cooking, if at all. Though very popular in dishes from Italy and parts of Asia, it’s seldom, if ever, found in the ingredients list of a meal in Greece. It was through a fellow blogger that I found out that the connection to this is out of reverence for the herb’s significance. It’s not entirely considered blasphemous to use basil for culinary applications, but it’s also not really encouraged, either. People have it growing everywhere, and it is perfectly adapted to the Mediterranean climate, but its use is almost completely limited to religious purposes.

In the Easter Orthodox Christian faith, the cross is typically shown “empty”, without the body of Christ on it, unlike what is typically seen in a Crucifix. The empty Cross represents Christ’s triumph over death.

During the services that commemorate this day as well as other significant times, Orthodox priests will sprinkle the parishioners with Holy Water using a sprig of basil. They will dip the basil into the vessel holding the water and fling the water off from there. Depending on the size of the sprig, the level of enthusiasm of the priest, and your proximity to him as he walks by, the sprinkle might be more of a deluge. Despite the solemnity of the service, this usually elicits a wave of chuckles throughout the church. It is a joyous event, so it’s still fitting.

You can get more in depth information about the feast day of the Cross, and so much more by visiting the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America by clicking on this link. Regardless of your beliefs, may this day and every day be a blessing to you and your loved ones, and may the delightful aroma of basil fill you with the kind of hope that it must have done when St. Helen discovered the true Cross.


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