Witnessing Like Boniface

The voice of the living God, given to us in the Scriptures, builds up the Church from age to age.  In no other source do we find the living Word.  Yet this does not mean that other writings are useless.  The lives of the saints give us concrete examples of how the Word of the Lord has borne fruit in every time.

Boniface gives us one such example.  Born in the late 600s in Anglo-Saxon England, the Lord called him to labor as a missionary in Germania, including parts of what is today Germany and the Netherlands.  His work lasted for decades until he was finally martyred on June 5, 754.  While he is known for his extensive correspondence and for being made the Archbishop of Mainz in 745, one event in his life stands out above the others.

Somewhere in what is now Hesse, Germany, a great oak tree stood.  This tree, called “Donar’s Oak,” was a symbol of the pagan practices of the area.  This sacred tree formed a sort of “natural sanctuary” for the pagans, a living temple or perhaps a copy of the world-tree of Germanic mythology.  As long as the tree still stood, it seemed to be a confirmation of the strength of the pagan gods.

Boniface was not the first Christian to labor in the area, however.  There were many Christians who lived there, but many were being seduced by the strength of this pagan cult.  In order to strengthen the faith of these wavering Christians and to give a bold testimony of the superiority of Christ, Boniface picked up an ax and prepared to cut down the tree.  What happened next is a matter of debate, however.  The biographies of Boniface all attribute to him a miracle.  Boniface had barely begun to chop down the tree when the whole mighty oak fell over and burst into four pieces.  Did a miracle occur?  Maybe, for the Lord is certainly capable of using miracles to strengthen the witness of the Church, as He does throughout the book of Acts.  Maybe not, because early medieval biographies like this attribute all sorts of miracles to the saints, some of which even the people of that day regarded as outlandish.  What is certain is that the tree was cut down.  Christ’s servant had done what no pagan had dared to do.  He then used the wood of the tree as part of a new oratory, a small church dedicated to prayer.

Miraculous or not, there are two important examples that we can draw from this account.  One is the strength of Christ.  The pagans were caught in a cycle of fear.  As long as their gods were happy, no misfortune would come upon them, and so things like this sacred tree provided a way of keeping them happy.  Victory proved that their gods still favored them, and so the strength of their gods meant a lot to them.  Boniface proved by cutting down the oak that Christ was stronger still.  This might seem odd to us today, since we don’t usually think of Christ in these terms.  Waiting to see whether Christ will lead our armies to victory seems almost foolish to us.  Yet Christ is in fact stronger than anything which the world brings.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” (Romans 8:35)?  Boniface reminds us that there is no reason to be caught in a cycle of fear, for Christ reigns triumphant.  As missionaries, too, we should remember that the peace which Christ brings, shown forth in our lives, is often a powerful means of witnessing for Christ.

The other example is the fearlessness of Boniface.  Regardless of how much actual danger he was in, it still took tremendous courage to cut down that tree.  Being a witness for Christ is not always a comfortable or easy thing.  It may very well mean taking tremendous risks or even suffering at the hands of unbelievers, just as Boniface himself would be martyred years later.  Yet in the midst of all of it comes the clear promise that “he who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16).  “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:27-28).  “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  Boldness, Christians, boldness for the kingdom!  You have nothing to lose, because you have everything in Christ.