One of the most famous swords in history is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It’s called the Sword of Joyeuse and is reported to have belonged to Charlemagne. The irony is not lost on me that Joyeuse in French means joyful, not a word I would normally associate with a sword. Charlemagne’s weapon was emblematic of his militaristic reign in the 8th century over vast portions of Western Europe. He wielded the sword to bring Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries into his ever-expanding empire. He sought to make Christianity the official religion of his empire. Anyone who refused baptism would die by the sword. Not exactly what Jesus had in mind. Enter Alcuin of York (735-804) into Charlemagne’s life. Alcuin was generally regarded as the “the most learned man anywhere to be found.” He met Charlemagne in 881AD after a trip to Rome, who urged him to join his court as a master teacher. Alcuin accepted the offer and introduced a liberal arts curriculum of seven subjects to Charlemagne’s sons and noble families. Alcuin was a devout Christian who had served the church in various leadership roles and took exception with the emperor’s policy of forcing Christianity on people. Genuine faith cannot be achieved with a sword. He wrote a strongly worded letter to Charlemagne in 796AD, “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptized but you cannot force them to believe.” His argument convinced Charlemagne to abolish the death penalty for unbelievers in 798AD. Alcuin is also remembered for developing a more legible style of handwriting and inventing the question mark. His prayer of confession and trust is a keeper:
Almighty and merciful God,
Fountain of all goodness,
you know the thoughts of our hearts.
We confess that we have sinned against you
and done evil in your sight.
Wash us from the stains of our past sins,
and give us grace and power to put away all hurtful things.
Deliver us from the bondage of sin,
that we may bring forth worthy fruits of repentance.
O eternal Light, shine into our hearts.
O eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil.
O eternal Power, be our support.
Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance.
Eternal Pity, have mercy on us.
Grant that with all our hearts, and minds, and strength,
we may always seek your face.
In your infinite mercy, bring us into your holy presence.
Strengthen our weakness,
that we follow in the footsteps of your blessed Son,
obtain your mercy,
and enter your promised joy.
Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.