A reflection for the Feast Day of Alcuin, Deacon of Tours
On May 20th, we remember Alcuin, a deacon of the eighth century in Northern Europe. . .a time and a place of upheaval when the civilizations of antiquity had met a rough end. The Northern European tribes had won the day against the empire of Rome, and the land was splintered into various fiefdoms, warring factions, and military kings.
Into this landscape, Alcuin shone as one of the bright lights of his day. He was highly educated, inheriting an academic lineage going back to St. Bede. Heading the school of York, a great English seat of learning, Alcuin, near the venerable age of 50, caught the eye of Emperor Charlemagne, who sought to re-unify Western Europe under a single power.
Alcuin agreed to join Charlemagne in Parma as his prime minister, but it was a most curious political-ecclesiastical marriage. Alcuin, the elder consummate scholar and man of God, was to tutor the ambitious young monarch. . . one who was not known for his refinement. Alcuin’s tongue-in-cheek wisdom about Charlemagne went like this:
“Behold our Solomon, resplendent with the diadem of wisdom. . .
Cherish his virtues, but avoid his vices.”
Sound advice still to all of us who, at various times in our lives, work and live with difficult people!
While certainly a preserver of the Christian faith as he had inherited it, Alcuin was also a primary mover and shaker in reforms that still stay with us in our liturgical tradition: from the correction of biblical translations, to our creeds, to the Collect for Purity at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist.
But even more critically for us, with his fine teaching and educational vision combined with Charlemagne’s ambition, Alcuin helped forge a vision of learning as an ideal for all people – the foundation of what was later to become the university system of the West. And, through education, all of us here today have inherited the benefits of Alcuin’s vision over 1,200 years ago.
The collect for our feast day today, honoring Alcuin, calls the period a “rude and barbarous age.”
While our nation is at the height of its economic and military hegemony, and we are tempted to see ourselves as quite civilized and far from barbarous, we still are acquainted with the work of terrorists, an ongoing struggle for peace in many places in the world, and our own troops and loved ones in harm’s way. They all remind us that barbarism is still an intimate and uncomfortable part of our shared life with the human family.
I feel even more strongly that our age can also be rude. We live in a time where people are tempted by the wonders of technology and a hearty cultural emphasis on individualism to go it alone. We live in a decidedly post-Christian culture, where the Church as an institution is often frowned upon, especially in the Bay Area. . .a place in the world where the name “Christian” might get a second, not-so-charitable glance! We live in an age where the intellectual arts are being eroded for the more practical and selfish pursuits of individual wealth.
It’s into this context that one of Alcuin’s more famous quotes echoes across the ages to us:
“The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
Alcuin knew something in his bones about the importance of preserving the full-bodied, warm-blooded story of the People of God – our voice, our Gospel, our prayers, our hopes, our shared history.
We preserve our stories, to use the words of today’s Gospel, like “scribes,” who have “been trained for the kingdom of heaven. . .like master[s] of a household who bring out of [the] treasure what is new and what is old.” Matthew 13:52
Alcuin’s mission in life, led by God, was to bring out the treasure of the People of God: the old texts – the texts of antiquity – the Christian and cultural heritage that describes us as a people. His mission in life, also led by God, was to bring out new theological insights; new vision for the future of the Church – our new story as Christian people, rooted in our present experience, born on the wings of wonder.
As a community of faith, we are called to follow Alcuin’s lead, like scribes for the kingdom of heaven. We preserve our traditions, because they are the stories of our faith, not only shared with Christians worldwide, but incarnate – born into our unique place and time in the cosmos – and worked out by the people we know, love, and remember. And we break into the new, drawing people in our own age into the story of Christ and the People of God, back into community, bringing out new language and new dreams for the people we serve today. . .and the people we prepare our communities to welcome tomorrow.
But we also know the tension between the old and the new. Alcuin, I think, would understand. No community lives in either the old or the new completely. If we live only in the old, we risk, at best, becoming a museum. . .at worst, we risk death. And if we live only in the new, we risk becoming rootless and wayward, chasing only the latest thing without anchor or depth. Our story then loses its authentic place in God’s story, which spans millennia and the great diversity of the human legacy.
God comes to us in both the old and the new. There’s something about that tension that is generative and Spirit-filled as it opens our hearts to God and each other through conversation, prayer, and shared ministry, drawing the community forward and more deeply into Life.
Alcuin reminds us that without our voice to proclaim the story, both old and new, God’s story will lose its place in the heart of our community. . .it could lose its power to bring redemption and hope to a rude and sometimes barbarous world. Our call, like Alcuin’s, is to continue carrying on this story – to proclaim God’s story in old and new ways, valuing the old, forging the new, and drawing real lives into its wonder. . .to find ourselves transformed by a God who keeps coming to us in story, old and new, with healing. . . and with resurrection.