It is the 28th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 814.
Depending on how you want to count a generation, this was about 48 generations ago, give or take. That's a lot. And there's a point to remembering how far back that is.
Now, think back to your seventh great grandparents. On my Father's side, that would be Cornelius Coert van Voorhees born in 1678 in Brooklyn. Now, going back that far, I should have 256 grandparents, but I don't. And going back that far you should have 256. But you don't either. No one is wholly outbred. Our family tree, the farther we go back, starts to fold in on itself, and eventually, we are left with a family web.
And if you are of any European descent, today, we don't merely mark the passing of a great person in the church. It's personal. Today we remember the death of Charlemagne, who is, according to a recent study with new DNA technology, our common ancestor. Charles the Great! But I suppose we should ask the question, is this something to be proud of? Being the progenitor of all people of European descent means you probably had a lot of kids. More than perhaps one woman of childbearing age could deliver. Let's break down Grandpa Chuck—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good: We know of him as the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 8th century, Northern Europe fell apart at the seams with raiders, invaders, and other marauding meanies. After his coronation in 771, Charlemagne conquered the Lombards and the Avars. He repelled Vikings and pushed the Moors further south. At its height, the Empire encompassed most of modern Europe. The threat of him sending his army after a rebellious ruler kept the peace. And this peace allowed for the development of the church, the arts, and culture. Charlemagne helped popularize Gregorian chant and insisted all new churches be built with schools attached. He favored the Benedictines and spent much of his fortune helping to build monasteries and enrich the church. He used his considerable (figurative) weight to combat heresy in the church as well. Few people have done more for the consolidation of the church as an institution as Charlemagne did. You could imagine the Pope was a fan.
So now, the bad: After the Lombards had captured Pope Leo, his eyes gouged out and his tongue slit, Charlemagne came to the rescue. Here it was that he was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. The folly of Constantine, uniting the church with secular authority, was recreated. The idea of "secular" and "sacred" was not divided to the extent that they are today. Maybe that was a good thing. But the State isn't called to turn the other cheek, and thus is the more dominant party, to the detriment of the church. Charlemagne's contemporaries claimed his favorite book was Augustine's "City of God." But we might wonder how clearly he understood Augustine.
And the ugly, Charlemagne famously slaughtered over 4,500 Saxons as they refused to convert and assimilate. Others who refused to convert were killed. If you were in the kingdom, it was assumed that your birthright included being a Christian. Perhaps I am just too modern in my thinking, but I figure evangelism is best without a sword. And the only one with a birthright to being a Christian is Christ himself, and by baptism and belief, we are given citizenship in a much better kingdom.
Charlemagne belongs with great names like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Constantine. Like them, his legacy is cloudy. Like Constantine, he was a flawed man used to build a church, no matter how clumsily. Today we remember the flawed, the great, the Christian, the amorous Charlemagne who died on the 28th of January in 814.
Today's reading comes from Bernard of Clairvaux, his "Jesus the Very Thought of Thee," translated by Edward Caswell.
Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.
Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 28th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a fellow grandson of Charlemagne, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.