The quote is known as “the great commission” given to the apostles by Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20.
We have already seen how within a generation the apostles themselves reached throughout the Mediterranean basin and one even got as far as India. Next we looked at the expansion to the northern provinces of the Roman Empire, Gaul (France) and Britannia (England).
Now from the 700s to the 900s came the three great expansions north, to Germany, Scandinavia and the Slavic lands of the Balkans all the way to Muscovy. Of course, just as Christianity expanded, it was faced with its first external challenge at its geographical edges.
Smack in the middle of this, in the year 800, the first non-Roman European multinational and imperial ruler, Charlemagne, was crowned by the pope. This was an event that would be echoed almost exactly a thousand years later, both with ringing significance.
For the faith, social culture, politics and self-understanding of Christian Europe, the papal crownings of Charlemagne and Napoleon are like the bookends of Christendom, a social culture of monarchical caste societies organized under the veneer of a faith that was often only skin deep. I bring up this side topic only to make clear the environment in which evangelization proceeded in the millenium in question.
In the cases of Germany and Scandinavia, the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities commissioned learned monks to take the faith of the gospel, along with their religious and secular book learning, to pagan, largely uncivilized and unlettered tribes. The targets of evangelization in the far north of Europe were coming under the influence of comparatively more advanced, and Christianized, western and southern kingdoms and the apostles brought faith in European baggage, as would happen three-quarters to half a millenium later beyond Europe.
The English and Frankish apostles to Germany and Scandinavia, Saints Boniface and Ansgar, respectively, started out as sons of well-to-do families who became monks, were sent abroad to evangelize and eventually became bishops where they went, with all the religious and secular political implications in that turbulent era and those wild lands.
Boniface (675? –754), born Winfrid in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, England, cut his missionary teeth around 716 in Frisia, the coastal region along the southeastern corner of the North Sea (today the Netherlands and northwestern Germany). Returning to Rome rather then England he was renamed Boniface by Pope Gregory II, after a popularly acclaimed fourth-century martyr, and appointed “missionary bishop” over for Germania.
The appointment was unusual in two respects. First, it covered a largely unchartered vast territory from Belgium all the way to what today is eastern Poland, which over time broke down into separate linguistic and ethnic kingdoms. Second, he was a regional bishop without any church organization or clearly defined territorial diocese; eventually, he was named archbishop of Mainz.
The evangelization mission did not proceed in a straightforward manner. Boniface first went on an exploratory tour of Germania and, to his surprise, found pockets of Christianity and functioning churches and even monasteries.
However, the Christian faith that prevailed was a grab bag of Christian, heretical (Arianism, for example) and pagan ideas and customs. This was the result of mostly illiterate, untrained and well-meaning but irregular Celtic missionaries who taught doctrines and rituals at variance with what was then already known as Catholic Christianity, particularly as regards Easter, baptism, the emerging clerical celibacy and the authority of the pope and bishops. Moreover, neighboring bishops jealously wanted a part of his domain.
That a mission fraught with so many obstacles did not immediately succeed should not be surprising. Indeed, Boniface was murdered by the pagans he attempted to convert.
Nonetheless, Boniface left an unusual legacy to Western society and a classic example of enculturation of the gospel, or the process of embedding Christianity in prevailing social customs.
In a village in northern Hesse there was a very large and old oak tree known as the “Donar Oak” (Thunder Oak), believed to be protected by Thor, god of thunder, a place regarded as hallowed ground, where every year pagans sacrificed a small child to the god. The pagans boasted that Boniface and the God he preached could not fell the tree.
|Boniface chops down a cult tree|
in Hesse, engraving
by Bernhard Rode, 1781
There is more.
Missionaries were careful not merely to defeat the symbols of the pre-Christian faiths, but to turn them to the faith’s favor.
Boniface then pointed to a little fir tree that stood behind the felled and once mighty oak, and said,
“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”Therein lies the beginning of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree.
Saint Ansgar (801-865), had a similar trajectory. A 9th century bishop of Hamburg, still mission territory, he reached out to Scandinavia and is known as “the apostle of the North.” In 829, King Björn of Sweden requested a mission, and Ansgar was sent with a companion to Birka, about 18 miles west of Stockholm, where he made converts. The success prompted the establishment of the diocese of Hamburg in 831, set up as a missionary base with Ansgar as its bishop. As such, he established a school for missionaries to Denmark.
Unfortunately, the political and uncivil ways of the Viking Age did not favor missionaries.
First, Ansgar lost the support of the Frankish king when in 1840 Charlemagne’s sons divided his Franco-German empire. Next, a civil war broke out between kings in the region, and in 845 the Danes raided Hamburg and leveled the city. Finally, Louis the German, appointed Ansgar bishop of Bremen and joined that diocese to Hamburg.
Ansgar managed to return to Denmark and continue his missions to Sweden under King Olof; he is noted, also, for keeping good relations with two warring kings, who allowed Christianity to gain legal recognition. He died attempting to avert a pagan anti-Christian reaction and like Boniface, on the face of the immediate circumstances, a relative failure.
The mission that not only succeeded, but whose seed left broad markings on the social culture of Eastern Europe all the way to the Ural mountain range was that of two brothers from Thessalonica, Saints Cyril and Methodius (respectively 826-869 and 815-885).
The youngest, Cyril, was christened Constantine but took the name Cyril when he became a monk in Rome shortly before his death. Similarly, the older brother was christened Michael but took the name Methodius when he became a monk at Mysian Olympus, in northwest Turkey.
Their father, a military officer from the Byzantine nobility, died when Cyril was 14, and the two brothers were taken under the protection of a local leader who founded education institutions, including the University of Magnaura, in which Cyril eventually taught. Cyril was ordained a priest around this period and his brother a deacon.
Cyril was first sent on missions to the Middle East, given his command of both Arabic and Hebrew, to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. In these travels he discussed the principle of the Holy Trinity with the Arab theologians. This effort was one of the earliest contacts between Christianity and the new religion of Islam, which had overrun Arabia, the Fertile Crescent of the Asian Mesopotamia and west through North Africa, all the way through Spain to the Pyrenees, where the military advance of Muslims was halted by Frankish warrior Charles Martel in 732.
A second mission in 860 was requested by the Byzantine emperor, Michael III, and the patriarch of Constantinople, Photius (a professor of Cyril's at the University), to the Khazar Khaganate, between the Black and Caspian Seas, in order to prevent the expansion of Judaism there. Cyril failed, and the Khagan imposed Judaism on his people as the national religion.
The work for which both brothers are best remembered took place toward the end of their lives.
In 862, Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia (which covered modern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Eastern Austria, parts of Bulgaria and Romania), who had already been baptized and preferred the Greek style of the Byzantine church to the Latin and Frankish influence of Rome, requested from Constantinople missionaries to evangelize his Slavic subjects. Cyril and Methodius were selected for the task.
As skilled linguists, the brothers prepared for the mission by devising the Glagolitic alphabet, the first to be used for manuscripts in what is known today as Old Church Slavonic. The alphabet was designed to suit the features of the Slavic language. The brothers began translating worship books and the Bible—Cyril managed to complete the gospels and Methodius the psalms—into Slavonic, using that alphabet. Cyrillic, still used by many languages today, is a simplified version of Glagolitic, devised by the brothers for common use.
Despite their Eastern church influence, it seems that the worship books were based on the Gregorian Latin Mass, and to obtain permission to use them, they traveled to Rome. In 867, Pope Adrian II formally authorized the use of the new Slavic liturgy. Methodius was ordained a priest by the pope himself, and five Slavic disciples were ordained as priests and as by the prominent bishops.
Unfortunately, Cyril became ill and entered a monastery to end his days in prayer. There he took the name Cyril and died 50 days later, on February 14, 869.
This left Methodius alone with their disciples in Moravia. Unfortunately, the region was claimed to be under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Salzburg, who insisted that Latin be used.
There is some dispute as to how the pope made an end-run around Salzburg; one version is that Adrian named Methodius archbishop of the ancient see of Sirmium (4th century city in modern Serbia), with jurisdiction over Great Moravia and Pannonia (Serbia and adjacent lands), thereby superseding Salzburg by way of a more ancient claim. Methodius lived in unsteady conflict with his fellow bishops and constantly weathering accusations of heresy, but he stuck to his guns with Slavonic.
His successors had less luck. When Methodius died, on April 6, 885, he was buried in the cathedral church of Moravia; however, because of political disputes and poor records, it is still unknown where this church was located. This is easily explained by what happened in the wake of Methodius’ death.
St. Gorazd, designated as Methodius’ successor, was not recognized by Pope Stephen V, who took the Salzburg view and forbade the use of the Slavic liturgy. The new bishop banished the disciples of the two brothers from Great Moravia in 885, and they fled to the Bulgarian Empire, a kingdom that encompassed almost all of the Balkans, including parts of Greece.
Cyrillic gradually replaced Glagolitic as the alphabet of the Old Church Slavonic language and in turn became the official language of the Bulgarian Empire. The alphabet later spread to the eastern Slav lands of the Kievan Rus and ultimately Muscovy, thus all of Russia. Eventually it spread throughout the Slavic world to become the standard alphabet.
In this way, Cyril and Methodius paved the way for the spread of Christianity throughout eastern Europe. They are celebrated as saints on February 14 by the Anglican and Catholic communions and on either May 11 or 24 by Orthodox churches. They are revered with the titles Bishops and Confessors (the latter meaning confessing or giving witness to the faith), Equals to the Apostles, Patrons of Europe (shared with St. Benedict) and Apostles to the Slavs.