Merry Christmas, Charles the Great!
On Christmas Day, 800 A.D., Charles I, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and thus became “Charles the Great”, or “Carolus Magnus” and thus “Charlemagne: the father of the Carolingian Renaissance.” He is certainly one of the towering figures within Western Civilization, but he was not without his own flaws and desire for sometimes ill-gotten allegiances. He found a kindred soul in Pope Leo III. It was Leo who crowned Charles, marking the first time in history a self-proclaimed sole spiritual authority legitimized a regional and temporal power as emperor. With the crowning came the birth of what would be known, maybe ironically and maybe tragically, as “Christendom.”
This is a Christmas story, but without the Christmas story it would only be one more tale of power corrupting power.Yet as with all stories, when we look past human folly to find the babe in the manger, we find Him who will put all world governments on His shoulders to redeem them at the cross.
Some particular events behind the crowning of Charlemagne are disputed, with various chroniclers suiting the story to their own audience, but the splendor and significance of the event is not lost on anyone. On this day set aside for Christ’s Mass, the glories of ancient Rome met with the focus and zeal of the early church. The celebration of He who came in humility, who would upend the Kingdoms of this world, was eclipsed by men grasping at the power of each other’s supposed kingdoms. Lost amidst the glittering snow and diadem that day was a devilish transaction. This is the day when Pope Leo III officially recognized a temporal power as his only hope in life and death. In return, Charlemagne could cheat the hard work of statecraft for theonomic pronouncements that his conclusions were salutary, meet, and right because they were in line with God’s will. (In this, we may hear echoes of future cries from Crusaders of Deus Vult!) Abandoned by his allies, Leo III and a shady Western monarch would agree to legitimize each other’s universal claims from very regional seats of power.
The crowning of Charles the Great is the tragic Christmas tale of two men who, at the nadir of their power, in one last gasp of royal and theological grandeur, put on a spectacle that would bedazzle and beguile the world for the next 1,000 years.
Leo III seems to have had an unhealthy claim on both spiritual and temporal authority and had his share of (sometimes violent) detractors. Some of his rivals, who were ardent supporters of his predecessor (it’s a long story), ended up getting in a physical altercation with the pope and managed to gouge both his eyes out and cut off the tip of his tongue. Disfigured and hemorrhaging power, Leo had one more trick up his sleeve. He wasn’t beyond reaching out to his fellow, maligned leader, Charles I, King of the Franks.
Charles had indeed consolidated much of Western Europe, but it was often at the expense of local tribes and leaders. Thus, he was besieged by internal enemies from the Lombards to the Germanic tribes that would be a thorn in the side of the Empire through the events of the Reformation 700 years later. And despite his universal claims to power, he had rival claimants and enemies from outside: both northern bound Muslims traveling through the Iberian peninsula and southern bound Vikings terrorizing the coasts.
With these pressures, some bit of religious pomp and ceremony from a badly maimed and unpopular Pope was probably not what Charles thought would cure his ills. In fact, such a show of hubris was likely to be scoffed at abroad and it might sour relationships at home. But allegiances were hard to come by, and so Charles extended an invitation for Leo to visit him. Fearing for his safety in traveling to Aachen (where he was known to have enemies), Leo would tempt Charles to make the trip to Rome, instead, and celebrate Christ’s Mass in the Eternal City. In addition to cementing this alliance, and in honor of the season, the Pope offered to crown Charles Emperor of a supposed new empire, and one with a name that would hearken to supposed past glories. Charles, or Charlemagne, was hailed as the “new Augustus,” and his territory would eventually go by the misleading, and the somewhat ahistorical moniker of the “Holy Roman Empire” until after the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
Historians debate what knowledge Charles may have had in advance of his crowning, but he made his way to the newly built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to make an appearance with, and legitimize, the Pope. Both men were harassed and under fire, and here, they grasped at each other's very temporal (and very mortal) power. They exchanged the worst gifts in the history of Christmas: the church sold its spiritual authority for temporal significance and the Empire bought itself an illegitimate authority it would wield to the present day.
By wielding this compromised power, Charles seemed to turn the example of Jesus on its head - especially the story of Jesus temptation - to take a shortcut to power when tempted by Satan (Matthew 4). We read the story of the tempter suggesting Jesus break his fast by turning stones to bread. Jesus was shown the power and glory of the temporal kingdoms and offered them in exchange for a simple pledge of allegiance. And Satan tempted Jesus to test God’s temporal care for Him by throwing Himself off a ledge. Tempted to take a shortcut through the intended path for food and sustenance, for earthly safety, power, and authority, for life rather than death, Jesus refused all of the temptations. His way was not one of comfort and glory, but instead the way of death on the cross.
Charlemagne’s Christmas story, while of great significance and some dubious distinctions, is just another story of political maneuvering and church controversy if viewed in isolation from the first Christmas day; a day we celebrate a Messiah who did not see equality with God has something to be grasped but deigned to become an infant in a manger outside an obscure Judaean village. Born of a virgin, he was what some supposed to be a bastard child. And yet from that manger, He would grow to frustrate all the imperial designs of this world, in order to usher in his own kingdom of grace. It was not the pomp or grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica on that Christmas morning in 800, but rather in and amongst the lowly and least that we find our only hope in life and death. Not in the kingdoms of this world, but in the coming kingdom of Emmanuel, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins. Amen, and Merry Christmas, even to you, Charles the Great!