Would you stand barefoot in the snow for three days to receive forgiveness of sin?

One man did. In the eleventh century, the church fell into widespread corruption, and a dwarf-site reformer named Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII. Gregory immediately instituted change, insisting that he—not secular kings—had the prerogative of appointing church leaders in the various nations of Europe.

Germany’s emperor Henry IV resisted and tried to replace Gregory. The pope excommunicated Henry, dispatching an edict that the emperor’s subjects should no longer obey him. Henry flew into a rage, storming around for months as his subjects rebelled. He finally realized the only way to save his crown was by seeking Gregory’s forgiveness.

The winter of 1077 was among the coldest in memory. Even so, a few days before Christmas Henry left Germany with his wife and infant son, crossing the Alps as a penitent seeking absolution. The queen and child were lifted and lowered across the icy slopes in rough sleds of oxhide. Horses were killed for warmth and food. The little entourage arrived at the palace housing the pope in Canossa, Italy, on January 21, 1077, when the cold was severest. For three days Henry stood in the snow, a penitent with bare head and feet, in a coarse woolen shirt, shivering, and knocking for entrance. “The stern old pope, as hard as a rock and as cold as the snow, refused till he was satisfied that the cup of humiliation was drained to the dregs.”*

Henry was finally allowed into the presence of the pint-size pope, throwing himself at his feet and bursting into tears, saying, “Spare me, holy father, spare me!”

Gregory forgave him.

We don’t have to stand barefoot in the cold, for Christ hung on Calvary that our sins, though scarlet, should be as white as snow.

I, the Lord, invite you to come and talk it over. Your sins are scarlet red, but they will be whiter than snow or wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

* Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 5: The Middle Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1907), p. 55.

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 21.

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