AN ENGLISHMAN IN EUROPE
Winfrith was born at Crediton in Devon in 675.
Aged eleven, he was sent to Exeter to be educated.
Winfrith took the name Boniface
when he entered the monastery in Exeter.
He was bright, and was to prove to be a fast-learner. He showed particular prowess in Latin, and proved to be both a scholar and a poet.
He was ordained when he was thirty years old, and seemed destined for early promotion within the Church.
However, he knew that God had other plans - He rejected a safe ecclesiastical career in England, and became a missionary in the year 716 to Frisia (in what is now an area on the borders of The Netherlands and Germany).
He was commissioned by the Pope to work in Hesse and Bavaria where he went after consecration as bishop in the year 722.
CHRISTMAS TREES! He worked tirelessly in the country destroying idols and temples across Germany, and building churches in their place. It was around the time of Winter Solstice, that he was said to have come across a group worshipping an old oak tree. Horrified by what he saw as blasphemy, Boniface grabbed the nearest axe and hacked down the tree. As he did this he called the worshippers to see the power of his God over theirs.
The feelings of the locals were understandably mixed, but Boniface’s actions seem mainly to have been taken in good spirit, with some of the tales saying he converted many on the spot. Tradition has it that a fir tree grew spontaneously in the oak’s place. The fir was seen as an image of God, and many believed its evergreen character symbolised the everlasting love of the Creator. According to the story, the next year all who had been converted to Christianity there hung decorations from the tree to celebrate what they now called Christmas rather than Winter Solstice.
Boniface is reputed to have preached: "“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.”
The story spread and soon Christmas trees became the norm in the newly converted Bavaria, and eventually spread out to become the tinsel strewn, electric lit, bauble hung festival we know today.
He was the founder of monasteries across southern Germany and made sure that they were places of learning, so that evangelising could continue. He became Archbishop of Mainz in 732, where he consecrated many missionary bishops.
He worked assiduously for the reform of the Church in France and managed to ensure that the Rule of St Benedict was adhered to in her monasteries. He crowned Pepin as the Frankish king in 751.
On June 5th 754, whilst Boniface was waiting for some new Christians to arrive for Confirmation, he was murdered by bandits in Dokkum, Frisia.
The Book of the Gospels with which he tried to protect himself and the dagger which killed him, are reputedly kept at Fulda Abbey (in Germany) which he had founded. He is commemorated in a fine statue in the centre of Fulda, as shown in the photo below.
We should be proud of, and honour, Boniface’s faith, courage, missionary and reforming zeal; he has been judged as having a deeper influence on Europe than any other Englishman!
LUKE 10. The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.....Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'
God our Redeemer, who called your servant Boniface to preach the gospel among the German people and to build up the European Church in holiness: grant that we may preserve in our hearts that faith which he taught with his words and sealed with his blood, and profess it in lives dedicated to your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Pray for the Church in Europe, which owes so much to Boniface. For deeper understanding between Christians of the Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions. For peace and unity in Europe, and for ourselves, a personal faith as strong as Boniface's.