By THOMAS BLOM CHITTICK
Ansgar, a French born Benedictine (801-865), was given the title of the Apostle Of The North by the church in Rome and became the founding Bishop of Hamburg. Of special interest to us at St Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland, Maine were his missionary journeys into Denmark and Sweden, which won him the official title of Apostle. We were looking for a logo, or image, for our congregation, which ultimately led us to The Reverend Ann Deneen, who at the time was pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Gloucester, MA. She is a well known iconographer in the New England Synod. She agreed to paint (write) an icon of Ansgar and would do so in the classical way of traditional icon painting by rooting her work in prayer. I know she worked this way because she often reflected on those prayers: some for the congregation bearing the saint’s name, some for Ansgar’s emerging image, and some for her own search for meaning and closeness to the saint. But first, let us turn to Ansgar’s five missionary journeys, which are known to us through his assistant who wrote a biography of the saint the year after Ansgar died on Feb 3, 865.
Soon after Ansgar was ordained, the Christian King of Denmark appealed to the empirical court for someone to preach in Viking Denmark. Over the derisive laughter of his fellow monks, Ansgar answered that call and went off for a two year stint in Slesvig, Denmark (826). Who, his fellow monks and friends laughed, would be so foolish as to think he could preach among Vikings?! But off he went, undeterred by their ribbings and nervous entreaties. He did not venture north into Jutland, however, without first waiting for direction through his dreams. Dreaming was a central aspect of Ansgar’s spirituality after a dream about his deceased mother. She came to him encouraging him to pay more attention to his studies. Having been an undisciplined youngster, the dream produced a change of heart, leading him, thereafter, to work hard at his studies and to follow his dreams when embarking on any new venture.
After a two year stay in Denmark, Ansgar returned south. The effort in Denmark had not yielded a great deal of success, save for a school for boys. In the Hamburg area, to which he returned, the work of ministry was more established. Some years later, a second request came for a preacher, this time to Viking Sweden. The invitation was from the Christian King of Sweden. Off Ansgar went again, this time by boat only to have the boat over-taken by pirates who robbed him of all the churchly articles necessary for worship and study. Inexplicably the pirates let Ansgar and his party off on shore. From there they walked for miles to Birka in south central Sweden. If you travel to Birka today you’ll see a huge stone cross erected in Ansgar’s memory.
After his work in Sweden under the protection of the King, Ansgar returned to Hamburg where he became the Bishop and which become headquarters for his missionary work in The North. In 834 Hamburg became an archbishopric, which included Iceland, Greenland and all of Scandinavia. But then in 854 Vikings laid waste to Hamburg and Bremen. And for two years Ansgar was simply a wanderer in northern Germany. Eventually he was installed as Bishop of Bremen (849). Soon thereafter he responded to yet a third appeal by the Emperor to again travel to Slesvig. This time the new King of Denmark was not a Christian. So the Emperor devised a plan whereby Ansgar became something like an ambassador of the court, which helped Ansgar gain access to the king. It proved a wise plan because Ansgar and the king eventually became friends and ultimately Ansgar baptized the king.
In 853 Ansgar made yet another missionary trip to Birka, Sweden. This time, however, the king could not give clear permission for Ansgar to preach, but he told the bishop that a council of Viking chieftains was soon to gather to select which gods they would officially recognize. Ansgar was allowed into that gathering and, in what was a kind of game of chance, resembling the childhood game of pick-up sticks, Ansgar was permitted to insert the name of Jesus along with the chieftains’ sticks with the names of many Viking deities. Many sticks were picked for official recognition and one of them was the stick with the name of Jesus on it, the one Ansgar had inserted. Thus Ansgar was permitted to preach in Sweden. This time a stronger Christian community was established in Birka.
Before his death in 865, Ansgar made a fifth mission trip, to Ribe, Denmark. There, over vigorous protests by the Vikings, Ansgar erected the first church bell in Scandinavia. How the Vikings objected to the tolling of that bell! Soon thereafter, Ansgar died and it became clear to his biographer that there were several distinguishing characteristics to Ansgar’s ministry that needed recognition. The saint refused any military escort offered him by the imperial court; amidst the Vikings he would convert by word not by sword. Ansgar was renowned among Christians for being a person of prayer. Specifically, he had the gift of offering healing by prayer. But what distinguishes him in this vein was his insistence that his assistants play down these healings by whatever gift Ansgar had so as not to draw attention to himself. Also, in Ansgar’s day the booty of war could include capturing people from among the vanquished to be used for slave labor. Ansgar, when he could, bought many indentured people out of slavery.
Within two years of Ansgar’s death, all of the Christian communities and churches in Sweden and Denmark he had established either fell apart or were driven underground. It was not until two hundred years after the saint’s death that a Christian church was officially and permanently established in Slesvig. And it was said by those who were instrumental in bringing this congregation into existence that it was the spirit of Ansgar that helped it happen. One could almost say that it was his sixth missionary journey, which brings me to our Ansgar icon in Portland, Maine.
Picking up on the notion of a sixth posthumous journey, iconographer Ann wondered why we couldn’t imagine the Saint journeying to North America; a seventh journey. Some months later, I was visiting friends on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot Bay. Thinking of Ann’s question, I took a photo from the island as I faced easterly, looking toward the mainland and Cape Rosier. I sent it on to Ann as a template for her icon and her imagination: Ansgar in North America. That’s what you see in this depiction of the Apostle of the North. It was not, however, a fanciful ruse. What Ansgar accomplished and the obstacles he overcame make him a man for this particular season of Christianity in the Western world. Similar to Ansgar in hostile Viking Scandinavia, the church in the US and in much of Europe is “up against it,” hard pressed to contend with forces within and without that make for tough sledding in our time. Ansgar, in this way of imagining, can be an inspiration for perseverance in challenging times.
The icon has some anachronisms, which we enjoyed employing. The cross in the crook of the staff is a replica of the Birka Cross, only discovered in an archeological dig less than a hundred years ago. Since we were uncertain of how a monk of his time was dressed, the robe he wears in the icon was chosen from photos we had seen of Thomas Merton. The little white church Ansgar cradles, which is a standard symbol in Byzantine iconography for a church builder, is a replica of a typical Danish country church. But these churches in fact date back only to the 16th and17th centuries. Finally, Ann and I have spent a lot of time in campus ministry, so we very much wanted Ansgar’s likeness to be from when he was young, not “venerable.” It’s an icon for the younger generations to identify with. Following Ansgar the visionary, the dreamer, we dreamt of him in North America surrounded with these symbolic features and leading us into our unknown futures.
May his faith and bravery be a model for how we do church in these trying times.
Bridget Lois Jensen