Apostle of the North

Today the church honors a Saint whose work was like a fine wine taking time to develop: St. Ansgar, Bishop of Hamburg and Apostle of the North.

9th Century St. Ansgar was, on the face of his work, not very accomplished. In all of his missionary zeal he was only able to establish two churches on the border of Denmark and appoint one priest in Sweden.

But the small seeds that St. Ansgar scattered across the frozen north eventually took root, settling and snuggling in with the Viking and Celtic practices found there.

At the beginning of the 9th Century the church was seeing Scandinavia as the next frontier for the faith. A few prominent nobles had embraced Christianity, including King Harald (cool spelling of that name, no?) of Denmark who sought to regain his throne from a pagan usurper. In response to some of these hospitable events, the church began sending missionaries to the Viking lands. The seafaring people they met there were hearty and quite sophisticated in their own way, and though they tolerated (sometimes) these missionaries, they mostly saw them as useful for creating trading markets.

Still, the message these missionaries carried did take hold, especially amongst the slaves that had been brought north who were eager to hear the stories of their childhood faith offering hope in a weary land.

In 829 AD a group of these merchants asked Emperor Louis the Pious (who’d want to be remembered like that?) to send a Christian mission to Sweden to help establish a regular trading route, and Ansgar was chosen.

Ansgar and his small party set out and were attacked by Vikings who took all of their possessions and money. Arriving at their destination penniless, King Bjorn (the local prelate) gave them food, shelter, and allowed them to preach their Gospel. Though they had few converts, King Bjorn’s bailiff took the faith to heart and, with his own capital, erected the first church in Sweden.

In 831 St. Ansgar was appointed Archbishop of Hamburg, seeing that as a good place from which to continue sending missions to the north. St. Ansgar was blessed with an organizational mind (probably an Enneagram One) and was able to create community systems to preach and gather small pockets of apocalyptic people together to practice the faith.

In 845 Vikings saw Hamburg as a growing site of wealth and organization and decided they wanted in on the action, so they pillaged it and burned it to the ground. Undeterred, St. Ansgar continued to rebuild after the destruction of the city, patiently working and restoring those missional pathways throughout Denmark and Sweden. He worked at this until his death in 865 AD.

St. Ansgar is now roundly regarded as a Patron Saint of Scandinavia having tilled the soil and planted seeds that, true to the agrarian reality of the frigid north, took a while to take root. He is usually depicted in a fur collar and holding a mini-church, a nod to his life’s work.

St. Ansgar is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes you don’t see the fruits of your labor, but you stick at it, by God.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

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