Saint Boniface was an English monk who was a missionary to various Germanic tribes. He is thus known today as the "Apostle to Germany". He converted many pagans, and strengthened the church in Germany. He died a martyr during the course of his missionary work, ambushed by one of these pagan tribes. Saint Boniface is said to have introduced the Christmas tree: tradition tells of how he felled a sacred oak dedicated to the pagan gods, and told his converts to honor the fir tree instead as a celebration of Christ's birth.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate St Boniface
Saint Boniface is the patron Saint of Germany, and is celebrated for bringing the gospel to various Germanic tribes. He was born in England under the name Winfried, but at an early life decided to devote himself to God as a missionary in continental Europe. His initial missionary attempts were not very successful, but he would eventually be known as one of the greatest missionaries of the Christian church. Let us hear a brief account of his life from the Englih hagiographer, Rev. Alban Butler:
ST. BONIFACE was born at Crediton in Devonshire, England, in the year 680. Some missionaries staying at his father's house spoke to him of heavenly things, and inspired him with a wish to devote himself, as they did, to God. He entered the monastery of Exminster, and was there trained for his apostolic work. His first attempt to convert the pagans in Holland having failed, he went to Rome to obtain the Pope's blessing on his mission, and returned with authority to preach to the German tribes. It was a slow and dangerous task; his own life was in constant peril, while his flock was often reduced to abject poverty by the wandering robber bands. Yet his courage never flagged. He began with Bavaria and Thuringia, next visited Friesland, then passed on to Hesse and Saxony, everywhere destroying the idol temples and raising churches on their site. He endeavored, as far as possible, to make every object of idolatry contribute in some way to the glory of God; on one occasion, having cut down on immense oak which was consecrated to Thor, he used the tree in building a church, which he dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles. He was now recalled to Rome, consecrated Bishop by the Pope, and returned to extend and organize the rising German Church. With diligent care he reformed abuses among the existing clergy, and established religious houses throughout the land. At length, feeling his infirmities increase, and fearful of losing his martyr's crown, Boniface appointed a successor to his monastery, and set out to convert a fresh pagan tribe. While St. Boniface was waiting to administer Confirmation to some newly-baptized Christians, a troop of pagans arrived, armed with swords and spears. His attendants would have opposed them, but the Saint said to his followers: "My children, cease your resistance; the long-expected day is come at last. Scripture forbids us to resist evil. Let us put our hope in God: He will save our souls." Scarcely had he ceased speaking, when the barbarians fell upon him and slew him with all his attendants, to the number of fifty-two.
Like many missionaries of his time, St Boniface was killed in the line of duty. Let us hear a more detailed account of his martyrdom from C. H. Talbot, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany. The martyrdom occurred in Frisia, a region which today is in the boundary of the Netherlands and Germany.
This, then, is how he traversed the whole of Frisia, destroying pagan worship and turning away the people from their pagan errors by his preaching of the Gospel. The' pagan temples and gods were overthrown and churches were built in their stead. Many thousands of men, women, and children were baptized by him, assisted by his fellow missionary and suffragan bishop Eoban, who, after being consecrated bishop in the city which is called Trecht [i.e. Utrecht], was summoned to Frisia to help Boniface in his old age. He was also assisted in his labors by a number of priests and deacons whose names are subjoined: Wintrung, Walthere, Ethelhere, priests; Hamrind, Scirbald, and Bosa, deacons; Wachar, Gundaecer, Illehere and Hathowulf, monks: These in company with Saint Boniface preached the Word of God far and wide with great success and were so united in spirit that, in accordance with the teaching of apostolic practice, they were "of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). Thus they deserved to share in the same crown of martyrdom and the same final and eternal reward.
When, as we have already said, the faith had been planted strongly in Frisia and the glorious end of the saint's life drew near, he took with him a picked number of his personal followers and pitched a camp on the banks of the river Bordne, which flows through the territories called Ostor and Westeraeche and divides them. Here he fixed a day on which he would confirm by the laying-on of hands all the neophytes and those who had recently been baptized; and because the people were scattered far and wide over the countryside, they all returned to their homes, so that, in accordance with the instructions laid down by the holy bishop, they could meet together again on the day appointed for their confirmation.
But events turned out otherwise than expected. When the appointed day arrived and the morning light was breaking through the clouds after sunrise, enemies came instead of friends, new executioners in place of new worshipers of the faith. A vast number of foes armed with spears and shields rushed into the camp brandishing their weapons. In the twinkling of an eye the attendants sprang from the camp to meet them and snatched up arms here and there to defend the holy band of martyrs (for that is what they were to be) against the insensate fury of the mob. But the man of God, hearing the shouts and the onrush of the rabble, straightway called the clergy to his side, and, collecting together the relics of the saints, which he always carried with him, came out of his tent. At once he reproved the attendants and forbade them to continue the conflict, saying: "Sons, cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good. The hour to which we have long looked forward is near and the day of our release is at hand. Take comfort in the Lord and endure with gladness the suffering He has mercifully ordained. Put your trust in Him and He will grant deliverance to your souls." And addressing himself like a loving father to the priests, deacons, and other clerics, all trained to the service of God, who stood about him, he gave them courage, saying: "Brethren, be of stout heart, fear not them who kill the body, for they cannot slay the soul, which continues to live for ever. Rejoice in the Lord; anchor your hope in God, for without delay He will render to you the reward of eternal bliss and grant you an abode with the angels in His heaven above. Be not slaves to the transitory pleasures of this world. Be not seduced by the vain flattery of the heathen, but endure with steadfast mind the sudden, onslaught of death, that you may be able to reign evermore with Christ."
Whilst with these words he was encouraging his disciples to accept the crown of martyrdom, the frenzied mob of pagans rushed suddenly upon them with swords and every kind of warlike weapon, staining their bodies with their precious blood.
St Boniface is also renowned as the inventor of the Christmas tree. There are many different accounts of this story. But in all the versions, St Boniface fells a sacred oak tree dedicated to a pagan god, and teaches the pagans to replace it with a fir tree that honours the birth of Christ instead.
I will read a version taken form a short story by the writer Henry van Dyke. The tree in question was a site where children were sacrificed to the pagan god Thor, and a young prince was about to be sacrificed. We will start reading from Boniface’s stirring preaching, that convinces the pagans to instead cut down the tree. Here he is referred to as “Winfried”, his birth name, rather than Boniface.
This is the word, and this is the counsel," answered Winfried. "Not a drop of blood shall fall to-night, save that which pity has drawn from the breast of your princess, in love for her child. Not a life shall be blotted out in the darkness to-night; but the great shadow of the tree which hides you from the light of heaven shall be swept away. For this is the birth-night of the white Christ, son of the All-Father, and Saviour of mankind. Fairer is He than Baldur the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than Freya the Good. Since He has come to earth the bloody sacrifice must cease. The dark Thor, on whom you vainly call, is dead. Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. His power in the world is broken. Will you serve a helpless god? See, my brothers, you call this tree his oak. Does he dwell here? Does he protect it?"
A troubled voice of assent rose from the throng. The people stirred uneasily. Women covered their eyes. Hunrad lifted his head and muttered hoarsely, "Thor! take vengeance! Thor!"
Winfried beckoned to Gregor. "Bring the axes, thine and one for me. Now, young woodsman, show thy craft! The king-tree of the forest must fall, and swiftly, or all is lost!"
The two men took their places facing each other, one on each side of the oak. Their cloaks were flung aside, their heads bare. Carefully they felt the ground with their feet, seeking a firm grip of the earth. Firmly they grasped the axe-helves and swung the shining blades.
"Tree-god!" cried Winfried, "art thou angry? Thus we smite thee!"
"Tree-god!" answered Gregor, "art thou mighty? Thus we fight thee!"
Clang! clang! the alternate strokes beat time upon the hard, ringing wood. The axe-heads glittered in their rhythmic flight, like fierce eagles circling about their quarry.
The broad flakes of wood flew from the deepening gashes in the sides of the oak. The huge trunk quivered. There was a shuddering in the branches. Then the great wonder of Winfried's life came to pass.
Out of the stillness of the winter night, a mighty rushing noise sounded overhead.
Was it the ancient gods on their white battlesteeds, with their black hounds of wrath and their arrows of lightning, sweeping through the air to destroy their foes?
A strong, whirling wind passed over the treetops. It gripped the oak by its branches and tore it from the roots. Backward it fell, like a ruined tower, groaning and crashing as it split asunder in four great pieces.
Winfried let his axe drop, and bowed his head for a moment in the presence of almighty power.
Then he turned to the people, "Here is the timber," he cried, "already felled and split for your new building. On this spot shall rise a chapel to the true God and his servant St. Peter.
"And here," said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree, standing straight and green, with its top pointing toward the stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, "here is the living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Call it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to the chieftain's hall. You shall go no more into the shadows of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame. You shall keep them at home, with laughter and songs and rites of love. The thunder-oak has fallen, and I think the day is coming when there shall not be a home in all Germany where the children are not gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in the birth-night of Christ."
St Boniface wrote many letters that survive to this day, which give us insight into his work and his thinking. Let us read from one of those letters, which explains his desire to bring the gospel to those who do not know Christ:
In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life's different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course.
The ancient fathers showed us how we should carry out this duty: Clement, Cornelius and many others in the city of Rome, Cyprian at Carthage, Athanasius at Alexandria. They all lived under emperors who were pagans; they all steered Christ's ship - or rather his most dear spouse, the Church. This they did by teaching and defending her, by their labours and sufferings, even to the shedding of blood.
I am terrified when I think of all this. Fear and trembling came upon me and the darkness of my sins almost covered me. I would gladly give up the task of guiding the Church which I have accepted if I could find such an action warranted by the example of the fathers or by holy Scripture.
Since this is the case, and since the truth can be assaulted but never defeated or falsified, with our tired mind let us turn to the words of Solomon: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own prudence. Think on him in all your ways, and he will guide your steps. In another place he says: The name of the Lord is an impregnable tower. The just man seeks refuge in it and he will be saved.
Let us stand fast in what is right and prepare our souls for trial. Let us wait upon God's strengthening aid and say to him: O Lord, you have been our refuge in all generations.
Let us trust in him who has placed this burden upon us. What we ourselves cannot bear let us bear with the help of Christ. For he is all-powerful and he tells us: My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Let us continue the fight on the day of the Lord. The days of anguish and of tribulation have overtaken us; if God so wills, let us die for the holy laws of our fathers, so that we may deserve to obtain an eternal inheritance with them.
Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ's flock. Let us preach the whole of God's plan to the powerful and to the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season, as Saint Gregory writes in his book of Pastoral Instruction.
Saint Boniface is venerated on June 5, and is considered a saint in all Christian traiditions that venerate saints. He is of particular importance in Germany, where he worked and died, and in England where he was born. The relics of Saint Boniface are primarily in Fulda, Germany, in a monastery there.
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Let us end with a reflection by Father Edward Mazuski of
Portsmouth Abbey Monastery, which is a Benedictine monastery in England.
Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface, the Apostle to the Germans and a patron saint of Germany. This is also an important feast for the English Benedictine Congregation. Before St. Boniface was given the name “Boniface” and sent to the province of Germania as a missionary bishop by Pope Gregory II, he was Winfrid, a Benedictine monk in Nursling, a village in southern England. However, he turned down the opportunity to become their Abbot, and instead ended up changing the entire continent: converting many in Germany, and working on reform of the Frankish church, and especially its clergy, under Charles Martel and his son Carlomon, before ultimately meeting his end in Frisia, in the modern-day Netherlands. This work would help to create the medieval world of Christendom, exemplified by Charlemagne, the grandson and nephew of the Frankish kings St. Boniface worked with, who would unite all the lands St. Boniface worked in under a new Roman Empire, although that would only last through his lifetime.
In some ways, St. Boniface is the model of a type of English Benedictine monk, the missionary. Like St. Augustine of Canterbury, the Apostle to the English, and St. Willibrord, the Apostle to the Frisians, St. Boniface went to Rome, where he received a commission and was ordained as a missionary Bishop. When he reached Germany, he preached to the people, and the rulers, and established a monastery near Fritzlar, in Hesse, as a base of operations. According to the lives written about St. Boniface shortly after his death, the chapel, the first part of this monastery built, was built from the remains of the sacred tree, Donar’s Oak, after St. Boniface, helped by a miraculous gust of wind, chopped it down, leading directly to the conversion of many in the area.
As monks of the English Benedictine Congregation, and heirs to the legacy of St. Boniface, we share in the obligation of the Church to evangelize the world, converting those who have never heard the Gospel, and restoring to the faith those who have lost it. As a monastic house with a school, our primary method to achieve this is through teaching the faith through our classes and our way of life. I will end with some words written in a letter by St. Boniface that can also serve as instructions for us in our mission. “Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ’s flock. Let us preach the whole of God’s plan to the powerful and to the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season.” St. Boniface, pray for us.