Merry Christmas to you all. Let’s talk about Christmas Day 800.
On Christmas Day 800 in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Leo III placed a crown upon the head of Charlemagne and pronounced these words: Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria. “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-giving emperor, be life and victory.”
Charles Augustus is known to us in history as Charlemagne. This was the crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. And it happened to be on Christmas Day. Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short, and he was the grandson of the great Charles Martel.
When Pepin the Short died in 768, Charlemagne became King of the Franks. That a king of the Franks became emperor shows that there had been a power shift from the East and Byzantium—a Mediterranean base—to Europe and the North. This was due to the ever-widening split between Rome and Roman Catholicism on the one hand and Byzantium and Constantinople and the Eastern Orthodox Church on the other. A few centuries after this, that divide would eventually become a full and final split between those two churches. This shift of power to Europe was also due to the rise and rapid spread of Islam, which had been occurring since the 630s.
So the pope needed to find a new source of power, and he found it in Charlemagne.
Charlemagne had his own enemies. Almost every year after he was crowned king, he was deployed on a military campaign to shore up the borders of the Franks. To the north were the Saxons and to the west were the Spanish. And so he too benefited from an alliance; as Charlemagne and the pope came together, this alliance would benefit both parties.
This was indeed a crucial Christmas moment for Charlemagne and for Pope Leo III, but it was also a crucial moment for the next seven hundred years. It marks and signifies what we call Christendom. Now, Christendom began back with Constantine. So we have to go back five hundred years from this date, back to the 300s. But when the pope crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor, it brought to fruition this notion of Christendom, the wedding of church and state, of pope and emperor.
In Charlemagne’s court was a clergyman, poet, and writer: Alcuin. Alcuin left behind a number of significant works and had quite an influence. And so on this Christmas Day, let us end with this short poem from Alcuin.
Eternal Light shine into our hearts,
Eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil,
Eternal Power, be our support,
Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance,
Eternal Pity, have mercy upon us;
that with all our heart and mind and soul and strength
we may seek thy face and be brought by thine infinite mercy
to thy holy presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
On this Christmas Day 2020 we can remember Christmas Day 800, but much more importantly, let’s remember the birth of Jesus Christ, our eternal Lord and our eternal Savior.