(The Wanderer, December 25th, 1984)
Christmastide, 800, was the season that Charles the Great, the King of the Franks, was crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in the Eternal City. It was the season in which the Triple Alliance of Christianity, Roman culture and the Germans—whose most important tribe was the Franks—was solemnly confirmed. Indeed, it was the season in which a stamp of approval was placed upon the entire direction of medieval Catholic civilization in the heart of the Christian camp itself. And because of what it was, Christmastide, 800 still remains a beacon light for Catholics in December of 1984.
True, the reader who investigates the events of Christmastide, 800, as they happened, may initially be disappointed. After all, he will observe these events hardly unfolded in any clear and consistent fashion, and their exact character has been debated for the past 1184 years. Scholars have wondered whether Charles the Great’s ever desired the bestowal of this honor in Rome. They have asked if Pope Leo III planned it in order to forestall a self-coronation by Charles that might have symbolized a relegation of the Papacy to a subordinate role in western life. Many have tried to determine whether Charles was ultimately flattered or displeased by the gesture, and to imagine what it was that the Romans thought about the revival of an Empire that a number of them, still loyal to Constantinople, did not even consider to be dead. In short, given the confused and potentially divisive character of Christmastide, 800, the intelligent reader might understandably accuse me of over-dramatizing its ultimate significance.
This understandable accusation would, I think, be false. It would be false, first of all, because of the fact that the importance of any given event is rarely clear, in all its facets, as it takes place. How frequently do actions that seemed to have been crucial at the moment in which they were undertaken, appear, later, to have been nothing other than groundless illusions with no meaning at all? And how often, in contrast, does a decision made confusedly, under the pressure of circumstances and with a variety of motives in mind, seem, after a while, to have really been the logical conclusion of a series of previous steps; to have been firmly-rooted in well-tilled soil? I would argue that the confusion of Christmastide, 800, masked a logic that was centuries-long in its development.
The events of Christmastide, 800, however bewildering in their initial appearance, were clearly the solemn confirmation of a Triple Alliance conceived in the 490’s in the former Roman province of Gaul. Gaul had witnessed the settlement of Germanic allies of Rome within its borders during the Fourth Century and the invasion of a number of German enemies in the next. All these various tribes began battling among themselves for supremacy as the imperial government collapsed. Their conflicts were watched with a certain indifference by the Gallo-Roman population, which felt that it would lose, regardless of the group of barbarians that triumphed. None of the Germans were Catholics; they were all either pagans or Arian heretics. None had a real sense of the spirit that moved classical civilization, or a grasp of its laws, its art and its philosophy. War was their occupation, just as war was their sport. Classicism and Christianity were the inevitable victims in this reign of the gladiators.
Clovis, the King of the Franks, a tribe which had moved into Gaul as Roman allies, began to change the picture radically. He may or may not have had religious sentiments; he may or may not have appreciated Roman culture. Clovis definitely did want one thing, though. He wished to see the strength of his tribe increase. Moreover, he felt that he had found a key to this end in the acceptance of Catholicism. Catholic Baptism would signify association not simply with orthodoxy, but, because of Christian connection with the Empire, union with the Roman imperial ideal also. The result might well be to galvanize an indifferent local population for the support of his particular German tribe as its friend and protector. Clovis and the Franks did enter the Church; many Gallo-Romans did, thus, rally to their cause; a Triple Alliance had indeed been conceived.
Conception is not birth, however, and the Alliance conceived by Clovis caused western Europe a long and difficult pregnancy. Rome was not built in a day, and it proved to be impossible to construct either Rome or a Catholic sense of things in Frankish Gaul overnight. Neither Clovis nor his descendents were able to create a legal, cultural and religious order that might begin to please a serious Roman or a serious Catholic. Barbarous concepts began to corrupt Christian teachings and practices. There was no development of a state administration worthy of the Roman name. The Merovingian Dynasty, as Clovis’ line was known, could not even sustain itself, and became more inbred and more incompetent as time went on.
Assistants to the king, called Mayors of the Palace, soon found themselves doing the job of the useless Merovingian monarchs. The task of Mayor gradually fell into the hands of another family, the Carolingian. One of the Carolingian Mayors, Pepin, was responsible for finally “delivering” the Alliance that was floundering in the medieval European womb. Pepin, by the 740’s and 750’s, wished to have the title of King of the Franks, since he was already doing the work that this entailed. He knew that the prestige of his father, Charles the Hammer, who had thrown back the Moslem invasion of Gaul in the 730’s, had given his family great stature among the Frankish warriors. Yet something more than military prestige was needed to secure the title from an already reigning chieftain-king. That something else, he felt, was a more serious and explicit tie with the Church and with the mission of Rome.
Both the Church and Rome needed something from Pepin at the same time. St. Boniface, the Benedictine Apostle to the Germans, wished protection from the tribe of the Saxons, which was placing serious obstacles in the path of his work of conversion. He also wanted a chance for the Benedictines and the Benedictine spirit to reform the corrupted Church of the Frankish Kingdom, and give it a real Catholic sense. Such a reform would inevitably strengthen Roman influence among the Franks, since St. Benedict’s Rule was a model of classical concepts of balance and law. Pepin had the ability to respond to both of Boniface’s desires.
Moreover, Rome, now ruled by the Popes, was desperately in search of a shield and a buckler. The tribe of the Lombards was ravaging Italy and threatening the Eternal City. Rome’s former protectors, the Eastern Roman Emperors, troubled by almost constant Moslem incursions, could no longer be called upon to perform this function. The Papacy was not even certain that it wanted them to do so, given the fact that they had adopted the Iconoclast, or image-smashing heresy, and had begun to punish Rome in a variety of ways, economic as well as spiritual, for not following them down this unfortunate pathway. Perhaps, the popes reasoned, a German tribe seeking to bind itself to the Roman ideal might be trusted where New Rome, Constantinople, had failed.
Pepin, Boniface, and the Papacy seized their opportunity. The Benedictine Rule conquered the Frankish realm. Pepin offered the Benedictines assistance outside its borders. Rome gave him permission to replace his Merovingian predecessor on grounds of incompetence. Pepin promised to deal with the Lombards. St. Boniface, and then Pope Stephen II, made the long journey to the court of Pepin to give ceremonial form to the deposition and the Carolingian assumption of power. The new King of the Franks was anointed in the manner of David, who was marked out by Samuel as the replacement for Saul. Pepin swore an oath to defend the Faith, and, with it, therefore, the Roman order that Christianity had incorporated into its life and law. Frankish warriors expressed their approval when the ceremony was concluded. The Alliance conceived by Clovis, but left floundering in its womb by his descendents, had been brought into the light of day.
Charles the Great was Pepin’s son. He took it upon himself to complete his father’s work. This he did with a fury, and sometimes in unacceptable fashion. He defeated the Lombards and made himself their king. He devastated the Saxons and had them baptized. Benedictine monasteries were founded and funded by him throughout his domains. An attempt was made to provide serious education for the clergy, and to raise the moral and cultural level of the active population as a whole. Even Charles’ failures, such as his inability to penetrate deeply into Moslem Spain, provided Western Christendom with some of its greatest chivalric legends for the future. It was thus only fitting that his work be rewarded by his coronation as Roman Emperor in Christmastide, 800. And it is thus only fitting that that coronation be seen as the confirmation of the Alliance conceived by Clovis and given birth to by Pepin.
But there is a second and perhaps more profound reason for underlining the significance of the events of Christmastide, 800. This is the fact that historical actions can have a symbolic meaning distinct from their literal sense. It can sometimes even be the symbolic meaning that has the greater influence upon the future of the world.
Western History is filled with illustrations of this truth. Rome, to take but one conspicuous example, conquered the Mediterranean world for a wide variety of less than elevated motives. The logic of its self-interested actions can be demonstrated through the confusion of events, just as the logic of the coronation of Charles the Great can be traced back to the decisions of Clovis and Pepin. How have the literal motives responsible for Rome’s conquests actually influenced the movement of history? Little at all. One cannot say the same for the symbolic meaning of its victories. This was outlined by Greek historians like Polybius, who emphasized Rome’s character as a place of law, order, and justice, and her mission to conquer in order to spread these same goods to the rest of the world. The works written by such historians were used to educate the children of Roman notables. Subsequent generations thus publicly spoke as though this mission of law, order and justice were indeed the reason for the growth of the Empire. Rome became a concrete model for international organization and justice by no means warranted by its original intentions and activity. It is in this form that Rome continues to have meaning for us today.
It seems to me that there is an enormously important symbolic meaning in the events of Christmastide, 800 as well, indicated both by the way in which the Triple Alliance evolved and the season chosen for its solemn confirmation. The symbolic meaning of these events ought to be able to move us, in our own troubled day, to the same kind of creative ventures that it moved the Triple Alliance itself. What is it that distinguished Charles the Great, and, before him, Pepin, Clovis, and the Franks as a whole? What is it that set St. Boniface and the Benedictines apart? What is it that characterized the popes active in the work of the Alliance? What did they all symbolize? Courageous affirmation, commitment and action; courage in the midst of brutal realities that would have led others to despair. The conditions for creating a new civilization, for giving life to a Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation were horrendous. They would have made a Mario Cuomo wring his hands in anguish. The half-barbaric Franks still had little idea of the real significance of the Roman outlook at the time of Charles’ coronation. Greco-Roman conceptions of the state as an organized, administrative entity that provided for the common good and continued beyond the lifetime of a given conquering chieftain remained quite alien to them. St. Boniface, more than anyone, knew the crudity of this people and the arbitrariness of its leaders. The papacy was all too aware of the dangers that might result from Frankish domination and barbarization. No one need have done anything, given the risks. Men often have preferred to go down to destruction rather than alter one scene in a familiar picture. Germanic stupidities could easily have been taken as an excuse to avoid contact with the Franks entirely, and to yearn for some future Eastern Roman aid. Men might have gathered in St. Peter’s during a Lombard invasion and waited for an angel to save them, as the population of Constantinople gathered in Hagia Sophia during the Turkish sack centuries later. The weakness of Rome and of the Christian position could readily have been used by the Franks to justify rejection of both. Men of strength have frequently crushed what was fragile and difficult to understand. But Charles and Leo, Pepin, Boniface and Stephen were men of courage, of affirmation and of action. They did not deny the magnitude of their problems; they simply chose to confront them rather than to run.
The courage of these people, their acceptance of opportunities and labors against appalling odds, can be seen in the work of Charles the Great and Alcuin, the Benedictine scholar, with regard to education. Charles himself, as his biographer notes, could never master the alphabet, much less grasp the wisdom of the ages. His Frankish subjects were, for the most part, infinitely more barbaric. Few places, with the possible exception of a contemporary American university, could have offered a more dismal prospect for intellectual development than the Kingdom of the Franks. But Charles, nevertheless, wanted learning, and called Alcuin from England to head a Benedictine school at Aix-la-Chapelle, the Frankish capital. And Alcuin responded by presenting a breathtaking vision of what might be achieved. He wrote to Charles of the hope of establishing nothing less than a New Athens in the Kingdom of the Franks. This New Athens, he explained, would be infinitely greater than the Athens of old, because of the fact that the modern center of learning would have more than the teachings of Plato and Aristotle to inspire it. It would be illumined, in addition, by the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Alcuin envisaged an expanding intellectual universe in the center of what was, at the moment, nothing more than a Kingdom of Gladiators! The present realities of this world of warriors would have made other wise men tremble rather than act. But the “realists” were correct only in the short run; St. Thomas, the University of Paris, Chartres, Giotto and Dante show us who was actually right.
Christmastide was also the symbolically-appropriate season in which to confirm the Triple Alliance. Why? Because the Christmas story demonstrates that courageous affirmation, commitment and action in the midst of brutal realities are built into the divine plan as a whole.There are innumerable fearless “leaps” indicated in the events surrounding Christ’s birth and earliest days. They begin in the supernatural realm. God the Father courageously committed Himself to His own Creation, knowing that this dedication would lead to His Son’s torture and death. He accepted the fact that the Divine Word would enter the world not in glory and power, as was His due, but through a poor and humble woman, and as a helpless child. Mary courageously allowed a pregnancy whose full consequences she did not understand, and Joseph stood by her in circumstances that must have been baffling to him. Both grasped perfectly only one thing: the misery that the apparent dishonor involved would entail them.
One example of courageous affirmation and commitment that forms part of the Christmas story stands out as most germane to my present argument. This is the fearless dedication to the Christ child of the Three Wise Men of the Orient, who represent both kingly power and learning. It is one of the great ironies of existence that those most interested in power often refuse to take the steps that can make their strength endure for generations. The military man and the statesman often reject contemptuously the serious wisdom that would root their work in a great mission and give it staying power. We are told that the Three Wise Men were kings. As kings, they had risen above the temptation to rely on brute force alone. They had allied their strength with learning.
Another of life’s great ironies is the fact that those most interested in the search for truth are often the least willing to commit themselves to it when it is discovered. The life of learning is often accompanied by a paralysis of the will. This is partly due to the scholar’s knowledge of the complexities of reaching definite conclusions, and partly the cause of a fear that his own importance will diminish should truth be actually attained. Paralysis frequently ends in ridicule of the whole concept of truth, especially if truths are presented from humble and non-academic sources.
All this makes the actions of the Three Wise Men the more brilliant. They came from the cradle of civilization, and carried with them the esoteric wisdom of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. It is also possible to take them as being symbols of ancient Greek wisdom and its problems, since the East had been partially Hellenized after Alexander the Great’s conquests. Such men could have been expected to stay at home, continue their research and await workshop reports after noticing the Star of Bethlehem. Instead, the Three Wise Men took to the road. They may have had endless discussions over the meaning of it all on the way to Bethlehem. But when they arrived, the representatives of an often paralytic enterprise bent their knees. The emissaries of the cradle of civilization eagerly paid homage before the cradle of a new, higher and decisive civilizing force. The Wise Men, violating all of the best principles of academic objectivity, abandoning all the arrogance of political and military might, placed their wisdom and strength at the service of a helpless child; a helpless child cared for by poor, dishonored parents, who were away from home at the bidding of a distant emperor. Not even a scholar! Not even a conqueror! What of the ridicule of fellow kings and fellow wise men before their action? What of the possible conflicts of human knowledge and faith, of state and church? Later, the Wise Men, in a sense, answered. We will work them out later. The Truth is there before us in human form, and He has promised not to reject us, so long as we accept Him. Our future difficulties must not prevent our present abandonment to the Truth.
Sometimes one sees paintings in which the Three Wise Men are joined by others in their homage to the Christ child. I should like to think that their entourage consisted of men and women who had been tempted by life’s risks and horrors to run, to hide and to despair. I should also like to think that these men and women were encouraged by the courageous commitment of the representatives of learning and power to embrace life’s risks in the Truth. After all, three kings stood before them who had not been deterred from combining knowledge and power, despite the obvious problems involved. These same kings were now ready to unite such explosive forces with courageous affirmation of the helpless Christ child. If they were not afraid, either of the world or of God, why should anyone else be? Why flee from love, because of the dangers of loving properly, or from sex, because of its possible abuse, or marriage, because divorce and cynicism are everywhere to be feared? Why hide from song and dance, from art and beauty, from the table and the vineyard, simply due to the risk of their misuse? Bring them courageously into the sight of the living God, who will not reject them, so long as He is accepted. Embrace the world in Christ, and begin the adventure of life. The future difficulties will be worked out along the road.
I would paint an extremely crowded canvas of the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem. I would draw behind the Magi the joyous faces of representatives of all aspects and walks of life; the joyous faces of all those who had realized that courageous commitment to the Son of God gave them the chance—their only real change—to embrace life, despite life’s brutal realities. In the distance, I would draw the Coronation of Charles the Great, and, behind this scene, the fruits of the courageous affirmation that it symbolized, Christian civilization in all its glory. Finally, far away from the rest, I would sketch in the Heavenly Jerusalem. Because God’s reward for courageous affirmation of life in the Truth is eternity.
The Christmas story need not have taken place at all. The Wise Men might have been frightened by the risks entailed for their reputation and power, and never set out on their journey. No crowd would have gathered to follow them. Joseph might have abandoned Mary: too much trouble and little happiness with that woman! Mary could have asked for some type of insurance policy from God. The Father might, with full justification, have admitted that His Creation was a cynic’s delight, and left it on its own. There would have been no painting, no coronation, no Christian civilization, no Heavenly Jerusalem. For the prize for failure to affirm life in the Truth, with all its risks and hardships, is eternal death.
Christmas was, indeed, the perfect season in which to crown Charles the Great as Roman Emperor. Charles’ coronation was, indeed, the symbol of a Triple Alliance of courageous commitment long in preparation. That courageous commitment remains the symbolic truth of the entire event. And what meaning does it have for us today? It has a meaning greater than perhaps ever before.
There is no more hopeless situation than the one that Christendom faces now. Everything that Christianity stands for is, for all intents and purposes, in ruins. Modern life is one enormous danger and risk. Even the simple things of life have become poisonous. It is enormously tempting for Catholics to run and hide from the world, as though the world and the world’s wonders were our mortal enemies. Christmastide, 800, tells us something different. It tells us to rush in where “wise men” less sage than the eastern kings fear to tread. The work of our noble and courageous ancestors reminds us that the Christ child is still there, and that with orthodoxy and a little backbone, there is nothing in this entire universe that we need fear. What will our Christian commitment to this world produce? No one knows. I assure you that everyone, from St. Augustine to Charles the Great, would have been mightily surprised by the character of the High Middle Ages. Christmastide, 800, teaches us to march courageously into 1985, a full supply of weapons and handkerchiefs in hand (for evils and tears one will encounter therein), shouting the same acclamations sung by the Carolingians themselves: Christus vinict, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!
Return to main page.