While writing about Epiphany, I meandered past Gothic cathedrals, kings and chancellors, and some of what’s happened over the last two millennia.
Maybe listing this post’s headings will help. Then again, maybe not:
- Crossing borders
- Good times, bad times
- Rough patches
- Love and neighbors
Their first stop, in Jerusalem, had consequences. But I don’t blame them. They were looking for a newborn king, so checking in with the regional boss made sense.
Their interview with Herod directed them towards Bethlehem, and obviously impressed the Roman client king.
Herod seemed eager to “do him homage,” as Matthew 2:8 puts it. Maybe Herod wanted to keep his “homage” low-profile.
The magi paid their respects and left their gifts gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
Acting on information received, they headed for the border after honoring our Lord, not Jerusalem. Joseph, Mary and Jesus headed for Egypt. After sundown.
Lacking the magi’s information, Herod fell back on his usual protocol: killing whoever might become a threat. All the boys in Bethlehem age two or under, in this case.
Not surprisingly, the deaths of a few unimportant kids in a small town didn’t make it into Herodian records. (January 15, 2017)
Our Lord’s family stayed in Egypt until things cooled off a bit back home.
A bit, but not completely. Herod hadn’t gotten around to killing one of his sons.
After Herod’s death, the Roman emperor let Archelaus keep part of his father’s territory: Judea.1 Joseph, Mary and Jesus settled across the border, in Nazareth. Maybe because it’s Mary’s home town. (Matthew 2:9–23; Luke 1:26–27)
Christmas-to-Epiphany Gospel readings aren’t in chronological order. Last Sunday’s was was mostly about three very stressful days for Mary and Joseph, when Jesus was 12.
They’d been in Jerusalem, celebrating Passover. On the way back, a day into the trip, Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t in the caravan. (Luke 2:44)
Any parent might be anxious if their 12-year-old disappeared.
These two were the foster-parents of God’s son, responsible for his welfare. And they’d lost him. Small wonder they experienced “great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48)
That account has a Hollywood ending of sorts.
“And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
But our faith isn’t all about good times and Hollywood endings. The Feasts of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents follow Christmas in the Church’s yearly cycle.
The word’s Greek roots had meanings like “display” and “shine.” “Manifestation,” too.
Folks have called Epiphany the festival of lights, Three Kings’ Day and Little Christmas. And still do.
If Epiphany is about light, how come my culture shows the magi in Bethlehem at night? That gets me back to light.
The magi were following a star.
Not, maybe, a particularly bright one. But a light in the darkness just the same.2
“…Perhaps because the star was not eye-catching, did not shine any brighter than other stars. It was a star – so the Gospel tells us – that the Magi saw ‘at its rising’ (vv. 2, 9). Jesus’ star does not dazzle or overwhelm, but gently invites….”
(Homily, Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2019; Pope Francis)
“…He is the ‘sun that shall dawn upon us from on high’ (Lk 1,78). He is the sun that came into the world to dispel the darkness of evil and flood it with the splendour of divine love. John the Evangelist writes: ‘The true light that enlightens every man came into the world‘ (Jn 1,9)….”
(Homily, Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2002; Pope St. John Paul II)
I’ve run across folks who see Europe’s Middle Ages as the Age of Faith.
I see the millennium after the Roman Empire’s decline as another few pages in humanity’s continuing story.
One of Western Civilization’s more promising periods started a couple centuries later.
Europeans had nice weather from about 950 to 1250.
That gave them time for something other than surviving. Some folks living in Frankish lands designed stone buildings — with walls made mostly of glass.
I think they were perhaps the most innovative architectural engineering Western civilization produced until the 19th and 20th centuries.
Not everyone felt that way. “Gothic” buildings blatantly disregarded Roman architectural norms. That, I suspect, is why Giorgio Vasari used the term “barbarous German style,” and that’s another topic.4
Christianity was increasingly common in Europe, so some of the most notable Gothic buildings are cathedrals.
Schools run by cathedrals and monasteries, and scholastic guilds, became the first universities.
Folks like Saints Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus were laying foundations for today’s science.5
Meanwhile, top-rank warlords had limited control over territories that were becoming today’s nations. I see that as a good news/bad news situation.
On the ‘up’ side, kings occasionally kept their vassals from raiding and pillaging each other’s manors.
A little over a century back now, they decided that war wasn’t a particularly good idea. Not between Europe’s rulers, anyway.
Their solution was a network of interlocking treaties. One country in the network attacking another would bring each country’s buddies into the war — then each of the buddies’ allies.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia supported Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia.
By the end of August, Europe’s war had spread across Asia and reached the Pacific. Nearly a half-century later, survivors decided that we’d had enough.6
I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s see, where was I? Herod. Magi. Charlemagne, Hildegard of Bingen. Right.
England’s King Stephen made Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury in 1138.
I’m not sure why. Maybe he figured Theobald would be more cooperative than someone in Stephen’s own family.
Archbishop Theobald wasn’t particularly easygoing. He figured that as Archbishop of Canterbury, he needn’t take orders from the Bishop of Winchester.
I think that makes sense, since Winchester was in the Canterbury archdiocese.
The Bishop of Winchester didn’t. Maybe because he was Henry of Blois, AKA Henry of Winchester, King Stephen’s brother’s son. He’d wanted to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Like most things involving humans, it’s complicated.
Then there was the Council of Reims in 1148. I gather that Reims was an important city at the time.
Reims had been capital of the Remi when Julius Caesar’s troops arrived. The Remi decided that cooperating with the Romans was a good idea. That helped their city become home to between 30,000 and 100,000 folks.
Fast-forward nearly a millennium. Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire was a couple centuries into its millennium-long run. Reims was still an important city, and headquarters for an archdiocese.
Hugh Capet was a king — of the Franks or of France, depending on who you listen to. Either way, he was boss of a territory that’s roughly where France is today. That’s likely why so many folks paid attention when Hugh called the 991 Council of Reims.
A top item on the 991 council’s agenda was the case of Arnulf, Archbishop of Reims, against Hugh.
Hugh said Arnulf was part of a conspiracy against Hugh. The Council went along with Hugh, deposing the archbishop.
Pope John XV didn’t accept the verdict, or the Hugh-friendly chap Hugh’s council said was Reims’ new Archbishop. That mess wasn’t settled until Pope Gregory V’s time.
One of the problems was excessive overlap of royal and church authority.
A reform was in progress. From King Stephen’s viewpoint, it was too successful, partly due to Archbishop Theobald’s work. Again, it’s complicated.
The 991 council’s aftermath, and Theobald’s track record, may explain why King Stephen didn’t want ‘his’ archbishop going to the 1148 Council of Reims.
Theobald was in a bind. His king told him to stay put, the Pope told him to attend.
Theobald attended, talked the Council out of excommunicating his king, that’s yet another topic, but asked the Pope to let Stephen fix the problem.
King Stephen didn’t like that, so he confiscated Theobald’s property and didn’t let him back into England.
The exile didn’t last. Theobald outlived King Stephen, and historians still don’t agree on what sort of person the archbishop was.7
Thomas Becket was Theobald of Bec’s Archdeacon of Canterbury, starting in 1154. Theobald added more ecclesiastical jobs to Becket’s job description. Thomas got the work done, which got Theobald’s attention.
The archbishop told King Henry II that Thomas would make a good Lord Chancellor. Henry II gave Thomas that job in 1155.
Becket took his Chancellorship seriously, enforcing the king’s revenue sources — including churches and bishoprics. Like I said, that was one of our rough patches.
Theobald died in 1161.
A royal council of bishops and nobility confirmed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry II let Becket take the position, maybe because he figured Becket would keep his ‘king first’ policy.
Henry II didn’t like that. At all.
A particularly tense situation in 1170 ended with Henry’s now-famous “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Henry II may not have used those exact words. Probably didn’t, since the “turbulent priest” quote is an oral tradition; and my language has changed in the last eight and a half centuries. Another version, in Latin, is far more flowery.
Whatever Henry said, four knights figured their king wanted Thomas out of circulation. They went to Canterbury Cathedral and told Becket that he’d go with them to see Henry.
Becket didn’t cooperate. They left the Cathedral, retrieved their weapons, returned with drawn swords, and vivisected Canterbury’s archbishop.
The bloodstains have long since been cleaned up.
Thomas Becket was recognized as a Saint. Henry II did a high-profile public penance for ordering the hit.
Folks set up a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, marking the spot where Becket died.8
Richard the Lionheart was England’s after Henry II. Henries IV through VI reigned during the 1400s. Lancaster’s Henry VI had another go at the throne, followed by York’s two Edwards and a Richard.
The House of Tudor came out ahead in one of England’s civil wars.
That put Henry VII in charge. England’s next king would have been Arthur: the one born in 1486, not the famous one.
Saying that the King Arthur couldn’t have existed caught on, at least as far back as 1925. Mainly because Arthur most likely lived after the Roman Empire pulled out of the British Isles. They’ve got a point. We’ve got precious little British documentation for the generations after from Rome’s pullout.
The now-familiar Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot tales make good melodrama, showed up something like a millennium after Arthur’s day, and that’s yet again another topic.
Back to Henry VII and the 1486 Arthur. Briefly. Briefly for me, that is.
His reign might have been much less messy if he’d lived well before the 16th century. Or been less concerned with appearances.
Henry’s wife #1 had several kids, including Mary I. Her sons were either stillborn or died shortly after birth.
What’s more certain is that he told Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage. The Pope refused, one thing led to another, and Henry VIII decided he’d do better with a state-run church.
That’s a huge over-simplification. So is what follows.
State-sponsored churches were becoming popular among northern European leaders. England and Europe had been nominally Christian for centuries. That, and tithing customs, gave high-level Catholic clergy considerable economic and political clout.
The Italian Renaissance was in progress. Wealth from global trade was trickling into northern Europe, but not fast enough for monarchs like Albert, Duke of Prussia and England’s Henry VIII.
Henry VIII’s decision to nationalize England’s religion did wonders for the royal treasury.
His appraisers traveled the country. Some churches and monasteries were converted to profitable rental properties. Reclamation crews “rescued” books, furniture, lead roofs and anything else with resale value. (October 27, 2017)
Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral lasted until 1538. Henry VIII’s agents had it removed, along with other reminders of the “turbulent priest.”
The nationalized church became a useful part of England’s government.
Purging Thomas Becket’s memory from England wasn’t entirely successful. Folks remembered the spot where Becket was killed. Some have been keeping a candle burning there.9
That picture isn’t More. It’s John Fisher, another Englishman who thought even kings should follow some rules.
Thomas More became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529.
In 1530, he refused to sign a letter to Pope Clement VII, asking that their king’s marriage be annulled. That didn’t endear More to the solid English churchmen and aristocrats who wrote the letter.
A royal decree of 1531 required all English clergy to take an oath, saying that Henry VIII was “supreme head” of the Church of England. English bishops at the 1532 Convocation of Canterbury agreed, after getting the words “as far as Christ law allows” added.
Some bishops in England wouldn’t cooperate. John Fisher was one of them. He was a cardinal by the time he was accused, tried and convicted of treason.
More didn’t take the oath either, and resigned as Lord Chancellor. He might have survived, since he didn’t publicly criticize the king’s actions.
Then More didn’t attend Anne Boleyn’s 1533 coronation. She’s wife #2. That, apparently, was an act of high treason. Thomas More was accused, tried and convicted. It took the jury all of 15 minutes to reach their verdict.
Before his execution, More said he was “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”10
I hope I never have to make the sort of choice Thomas Becket, John Fisher and Thomas More faced. But I think they had their priorities straight.
As Jesus said, God’s laws are quite simple:
“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
“This is the greatest and the first commandment.
“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
I should love God and my neighbor. That’s “the whole law and the prophets”
It’s simple. And not at all easy. Particularly since the ‘Samaritan’ story makes it clear that everyone is my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:43–44, 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 6:31, 10:25–27, 29–37; Catechism, 1789)
Those principles don’t change. This natural law is written into each of us. How we apply the principles should change as our cultures and circumstances change. The trick is to make new rules that fit natural law. (Catechism, 1950–1960)
We’ve learned that societies work better if someone’s in charge. How we pick our leaders is our choice. What’s important is that the system supports the common good, and that we’re comfortable with it. (Catechism, 1897–1917)
But as I keep saying, we’re not in an ideal world.
Maybe it’d be easier if blindly following whatever the nearest boss says would be okay. It’s not. No king, emperor, or other leader is above the natural law. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 2242–2243, 2267, 2313, 2414)
Anguished laments are easy, and fashionable in some circles. What’s being deplored varies. My guess is that climate change is still on the A-list, but American news has been focusing on politics lately.
The Industrial Revolution left a mess we’ll be cleaning up for generations. That’s the bad news.
The not-so-bad news is that we’re cleaning up the mess.
We’re still plagued by wars. That’s bad news.
But folks in a few places aren’t slaughtering each other in wholesale lots. Europe is one of those pockets of comparative calm.
That’s reason for hope. So is what I think could be an end to our empire-collapse-rebuild cycle.
Sargon’s Akkadian Empire brought a measure of stability to Mesopotamia. Later Mesopotamian civilizations remembered him as a wise and strong leader. Maybe for the same reasons that Lincoln, Washington and Alfred of Wessex seem a bit larger than life.
Four millennia after Sargon, we’re trying something new: an international entity that’s open to all nations. The United Nations is no more perfect than the Sargon’s empire. But I think it’s a good first effort.11
Now, about that good news — the best humanity’s ever had.
I thought God’s offer sounded good, and accepted it. That’s why I keep trying love my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. That won’t change the course of history, make war obsolete or solve this world’s problems. But it’s a start.
That’s why I keep suggesting that working together is a good idea, and passing along the best news ever:
- “Being Evangelical”
(March 4, 2018)
- “Homer, Hegel, History and Hope”
(May 12, 2018)
- “God, Love and Clouds”
(February 25, 2018)
- “Seeing the Big Picture”
(November 26, 2017)
- “The Eighth Day: Two Millennia and Counting”
(April 16, 2017)
This post’s first photo is from ISS036-E-28913; courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center. (eol.jsc.nasa.gov….; August 4, 2013)
- Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, homilies and a letter (January 6)
- Some of how I see it
- “The English Historical Review,” Vol. 1, The Origines of the University of Paris, p. 643, (1886) via Google Books
- Truth and fiction
- Why I’m hopeful
- Catholic Encyclopedia