Most of us usually don’t attend Christmas services that make their way into the history books, but that wouldn’t have been the case if you had been in Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome on Christmas Day, AD 800. Both a pope and a king were there too. The pope was Leo III, and the king was Charlemagne, who ruled the Franks in what’s now France and Germany. You would have seen Charlemagne kneeling by Saint Peter’s tomb. When he rose — completely unsuspecting about what was about to happen, some would say — you would have seen Pope Leo III approach him, diadem in hand, and crown him. Getting up with everyone else, you would have shouted three times “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”
A Christmas to Remember
What on Earth Just Happened
Why was the pope crowning an emperor? Out of fear of the spread of Islam? Out of genuine concern for the people in his care? Or was it a mix of both? Though the Roman Empire had fallen several centuries before, its legacy still captivated people’s imaginations. Because Islam was sweeping through the eastern part of the world, the papacy—or office of the pope—preferred to leave old empire around the Mediterranean in exchange for one in the north. Charlemagne seemed to be the man for the job. Addressing him as “Augustus,” the old name for Roman emperors, was a pointed gesture. It meant the church had just helped resurrect the Roman Empire, but this time in Europe. Charlemagne’s coronation by the pope was a dramatic symbol of a “new form of Christian existence” that we will be tracing over the next few weeks in our study of the church in the Middle Ages. This new form of Christian existence is also called Christendom.
What Did It Mean?
Christendom is a complex and loaded word, but essentially it names several centuries, mostly in Europe, when Christianity and society were viewed as one and same reality. While the initial phase of Christendom began in the fourth century when Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire, this second phase of Christendom, which Charlemagne launched in AD 800, was slightly different. This time a church leader was appointing a political one. (Last time, the Emperor Constantine himself had made Christianity the official religion of the empire.) Of course, as we will see, the relationship between church and earthly authorities was not always a harmonious one. But through ups and downs in the centuries to come, says Mark Noll, “Christendom endured as the shape of Christian existence in the West.” While today we may no longer conform to the same ideals because we tend to think of church and state as separate spheres, the historical reality of Christendom still exerts an influence on our own times. When we consider the fact that our lives are just at the beginning of what is being called a “post-Christendom” age, we can see why it’s important to try to understand what’s going on here.
How does the concept of Christendom, or Christianity and society as one in the same reality, make you feel? Do you wish you lived at a time like that? Why or why not? Is it possible that at the core of our being, we do long for Christianity and society to be one because we long for heaven, which is the perfect form of Christendom? For now, however, we still live as aliens and strangers on this earth who share the love of God and the good news of Christ wherever we go, no matter the cost.
Christendom presented both challenges and opportunities for the church of the Middle Ages. On one hand, the church was allowed to exert society-wide influence for the sake of the gospel. On the other hand, it was also susceptible to the abuse and corruption of political power. How has our own time reacted to those challenges and opportunities?
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