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From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 2

Constantine’s star began to rise on the political horizon of the empire over the devastation and civil wars of several quarreling emperors who succeeded after Diocletian’s abdication. The latter had inaugurated rule by two emperors, both called “Augustus,” and two subordinate “Caesars” — each with his own functions — himself as senior emperor keeping supreme authority. This scheme for dealing with the besetting problems of empire did not work well, but the division of East and West between two rulers within the Roman framework was the prevailing pattern when Constantine came to power.
Though he had been crowned at York, Britain, in 306 as the chosen successor of his father (who briefly followed Diocletian), it was several years before he could make himself secure. As emperor of the West, he was obliged to destroy his rival, Maxentius, who had become established in Rome, in order to unify the western half of the empire under his rule. Early in 312 he moved out of Gaul and in October approached the Eternal City with a small army after a bold winter march across the Alps. The ensuing battle was a matter of life and death for him, and involved the eventual success or the failure of his whole “mission,” of which he was acutely aware. He had dared to march against the City. But was it not defended by all its venerable gods — all the force of tradition, all the glory of the past — as well as by Maxentius? For a man like Constantine this struggle for the ancient city may well have meant a sacrilegious break with the past, and he may have been unconsciously seeking some new force or sanction, which would bolster him in his plan to revive Rome.

It was at this time of terrible tension and doubt that his conversion occurred. The descriptions of the event closest to it in time mention no vision of the Cross nor the traditional words, “In this sign conquer.” They say merely that he was led in a dream to have a new sign inscribed on his weapons. This done, he conquered Maxentius and entered Rome. Later the basic narrative began to grow into a legend, not without the help of Constantine himself. One point is beyond question: the sign he saw and under which he won his decisive victory was in his own mind a Christian symbol, and from that time on he counted himself a Christian.

Did he actually become one? Not until his deathbed, twenty-five years after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, did he receive baptism, the only symbol the Church accepts of becoming a Christian. (It had been his dream to be baptized in the Jordan, perhaps a reason for his long postponement). Then what had he been before? The answer to this question reveals the fundamental paradox in Byzantinism, already fully present in the unique conversion of the first Christian emperor. In Constantine’s mind the Christian faith, or rather, faith in Christ, had not come to him through the Church, but had been bestowed personally and directly for his victory over the enemy — in other words, as he was fulfilling his imperial duty. Consequently the victory he had won with the help of the Christian God had placed the emperor — and thereby the empire as well — under the protection of the Cross and in direct dependence upon Christ.

This also meant, however, that Constantine was converted, not as a man, but as an emperor. Christ Himself had sanctioned his power and made him His intended representative, and through Constantine’s person He bound the empire to Himself by special bonds. Here lies the explanation of the striking fact that the conversion of Constantine was not followed by any review or re-evaluation of the theocratic conception of empire, but on the contrary convinced Christians and the Church itself of the emperor’s divine election and obliged them to regard the empire itself as a consecrated kingdom, chosen by God. All the difficulties and distinctive qualities of Byzantium, all the ambiguity of the “age of Constantine” in Church history, result from the primary, initial paradox that the first Christian emperor was a Christian outside the Church, and the Church silently but with full sincerity and faith accepted and recognized him. In the person of the emperor, the empire became Christian without passing through the crisis of the baptismal trial.

Constantine’s star began to rise on the political horizon of the empire over the devastation and civil wars of several quarreling emperors who succeeded after Diocletian’s abdication. The latter had inaugurated rule by two emperors, both called “Augustus,” and two subordinate “Caesars” — each with his own functions — himself as senior emperor keeping supreme authority. This scheme for dealing with the besetting problems of empire did not work well, but the division of East and West between two rulers within the Roman framework was the prevailing pattern when Constantine came to power.
Though he had been crowned at York, Britain, in 306 as the chosen successor of his father (who briefly followed Diocletian), it was several years before he could make himself secure. As emperor of the West, he was obliged to destroy his rival, Maxentius, who had become established in Rome, in order to unify the western half of the empire under his rule. Early in 312 he moved out of Gaul and in October approached the Eternal City with a small army after a bold winter march across the Alps. The ensuing battle was a matter of life and death for him, and involved the eventual success or the failure of his whole “mission,” of which he was acutely aware. He had dared to march against the City. But was it not defended by all its venerable gods — all the force of tradition, all the glory of the past — as well as by Maxentius? For a man like Constantine this struggle for the ancient city may well have meant a sacrilegious break with the past, and he may have been unconsciously seeking some new force or sanction, which would bolster him in his plan to revive Rome.

It was at this time of terrible tension and doubt that his conversion occurred. The descriptions of the event closest to it in time mention no vision of the Cross nor the traditional words, “In this sign conquer.” They say merely that he was led in a dream to have a new sign inscribed on his weapons. This done, he conquered Maxentius and entered Rome. Later the basic narrative began to grow into a legend, not without the help of Constantine himself. One point is beyond question: the sign he saw and under which he won his decisive victory was in his own mind a Christian symbol, and from that time on he counted himself a Christian.

Did he actually become one? Not until his deathbed, twenty-five years after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, did he receive baptism, the only symbol the Church accepts of becoming a Christian. (It had been his dream to be baptized in the Jordan, perhaps a reason for his long postponement). Then what had he been before? The answer to this question reveals the fundamental paradox in Byzantinism, already fully present in the unique conversion of the first Christian emperor. In Constantine’s mind the Christian faith, or rather, faith in Christ, had not come to him through the Church, but had been bestowed personally and directly for his victory over the enemy — in other words, as he was fulfilling his imperial duty. Consequently the victory he had won with the help of the Christian God had placed the emperor — and thereby the empire as well — under the protection of the Cross and in direct dependence upon Christ.

This also meant, however, that Constantine was converted, not as a man, but as an emperor. Christ Himself had sanctioned his power and made him His intended representative, and through Constantine’s person He bound the empire to Himself by special bonds. Here lies the explanation of the striking fact that the conversion of Constantine was not followed by any review or re-evaluation of the theocratic conception of empire, but on the contrary convinced Christians and the Church itself of the emperor’s divine election and obliged them to regard the empire itself as a consecrated kingdom, chosen by God. All the difficulties and distinctive qualities of Byzantium, all the ambiguity of the “age of Constantine” in Church history, result from the primary, initial paradox that the first Christian emperor was a Christian outside the Church, and the Church silently but with full sincerity and faith accepted and recognized him. In the person of the emperor, the empire became Christian without passing through the crisis of the baptismal trial.

 

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Reference address : https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/schmemann-orthodoxy-2-triumph.asp?pg=2