Words on the Word

St Olav

This text is available in German here. You can watch the Mass, which featured the Kyiv Chamber Choir, on YouTube here

Wisdom 10:10-14: Wisdom came to his aid.
James 1:2-4, 12: Blessed is anyone who endures temptation!
Matthew 16:24-28: Before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. 

The Gospel we have heard represents a watershed in the preaching of Jesus Christ. We find ourselves in Caesarea Philippi. The Lord has asked the Twelve: ‘Who do yo say that I am?’ On behalf of them all Peter has answered, ‘You are the Christ, Son of the living God.’ Then came Jesus’s promise, inscribed in letters of gold above the apostle’s grave and Peter’s successor’s altar — the promise that the Church will not fall prey to the gates of Hades. Should the Lord’s words be interpreted to mean that the Church was assured prosperity in this world? Peter seems to have understood them thus. He expressed disbelief when Jesus went straight on to predict his passion and death. Jesus rebuked Peter and said: ‘You think like a human being!’

Well, I suppose most of us do, spontaneously. To understand the ways of God we must learn to think otherwise.

Today’s text gives us the continuation of the Lord’s exhortation to the apostles. He expounds the significance of the Cross. The apostles are told that the call to the Cross does not only concern Christ. It concerns them — and thereby us, too. ‘If any wish to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ It’s a criterion that brooks no exception. It concerns any follower. As always in matters of faith, there is a stress on free will.

God’s reverence for our free will is an immense mystery. ‘Do you wish to be healed’, asks our Lord (Jn 5:6). He says, ‘Let it be done for you as you wish‘ (Mt 15:28).

Every act of consecration in the Church involves the question, ‘Is this what you wish?’ We encounter it at weddings, professions, and ordinations. Free will is presupposed by the rite for the reception of converts. It is at the heart of the sacrament of confirmation. Before we receive Holy Communion, the priest holds the consecrated Host before our eyes and says, ‘The Body of Christ!’ We answer, ‘Amen!’, affirming our faith in the Lord’s presence.

But that is not all. We likewise affirm our continued, free commitment to the covenant embodied in the sacrament, the covenant sealed in Christ’s Blood.  To go to Communion is to declare: ‘Yes, I wish to live according to the new, eternal covenant accomplished on the cross for the salvation of the world.’ We are all conscious of our multiple fragilities. We are all sinners! We all need God’s grace, his repeated forgiveness. We all depend on the mercy of fellow believers. The Eucharist isn’t a prize for good behaviour. Still, something tremendous is at stake: incorporation into the sacrifice wrought by Christ crucified. We should, then, expect coherence of ourselves and of one another. God expects us to live coherently. By means of the sacrament he asks, ‘Do you wish to follow me?’ If I say, ‘Yes! Amen!’, I must manifest this free resolution of mine in the way in which I form decisions based on other, lesser wishes. Our speech is to be ‘Yes, Yes, No, No’ (Mr 5:37), not, ‘Oh well…’

The Lord goes on to speak about the relationship between this world and God’s kingdom. Now and again we must make radical choices. If I form an alliance with the world — even if I gain it all — it can be at the cost of my soul, the essence of who I am. And if there’s nothing left of what I am, what does it matter what I have? Throughout the centuries attempts have been made to attune God’s kingdom with this world. A gigantic experiment was made under the Byzantine emperors. The resonance it has left is not especially delightful. Catholics of the West tend to idealise the Middle Ages. We fancy that everyone in those days was devout, going about their business humming Gregorian melismas, and fasting on Fridays. If we engage with the sources, though, we ascertain that Europe was riven by tensions notwithstanding a formally shared religious allegiance. A contemporary attempt to equate state policy and God’s cause is being made in Russia. An authoritative declaration instigated by international Orthodoxy condemns this attempt, thank God, as simultaneously absurd and heretical. We Catholics of 2022 sail in the wake of an ecumenical council which predicted that the world would graciously open itself to Christ. Remembrance of World War II was strong enough in the early 60s to inspire beliefs that humanity, after such an overwhelming trauma, must be renewed. A sublime, beautiful expectation! But one hard to fathom now, when we see what whirlwinds these decades have reaped.

Remember, therefore, the Gospel’s warning. It is an illusion to think that the world can be gained. If we try, we risk damage to our soul. In fact, it just isn’t a goal we should set ourselves. Our task, at Christ’s bidding, is to carry the Gospel intact to the ends of the earth. But the confession of Christ is likely to remain remain, socioculturally speaking, a marginal phenomenon. It isn’t our calling to win but to be faithful. We are to live as witnesses to Christ, never mind if the world despises our testimony. We mustn’t, though, demonise the world. God’s Son came to redeem it. He loves it. We, too, are to love it. We are to honour people in it. Most folk want the good. The trouble is that notions of what constitutes good are easily messed up.

These days many people claim that we have entered a new era requiring, at every level, new categories, a new hermeneutic. I can’t see that this makes sense. I think we are up against a specific, contemporary expression of the same banal misconception Archbishop Eystein says Olav encountered when he first proposed Christianity to the people of this nation. ‘Sure enough’, he writes, ‘people had heard about the faith’, but found it terribly awkward to live by. It is a lot more convenient to surf on a euphoric wave of future projection, be it ethical or political, than to ask oneself: ‘Is there an absolute truth that requires something of me?’

Our time’s resistance to faith largely repeated arguments, if that’s the appropriate word, to which the Fathers responded centuries ago. What inspiration we can find in their writings, what a summons to equilibrium. We can look further back still. To be a Christian is to see the present moment in a perspective so broad that it touches eternity. Our first reading (taken from a text more than 2000 years old) records an experience of being oppressed, persecuted, exposed to others’ lies, positioned in battle. Against all these forms of discomfiture a single remedy is prescribed: Wisdom. Wisdom stands, in this context, for a personal presence that points toward’s the Father’s Word. It also stands, quite simply, for the opposite of imbecility.

I am led to think of something Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, wrote after he had been imprisoned in 1943. He was a lucid, free-spirited, intelligent, courageous man firmly anchored in faith, a wise man. Such a man is intolerable to totalitarian power. The Nazis had to get him sequestered and silenced. Bonhoeffer noted:

Stupidity is a more dangerous foe to the good than wickedness. One can protest against evil. Evil can be exposed. It can even, in extremities, be fought against with violent means. Evil always carries the seed of its own decomposition and at any rate calls forth unease in human beings. Against stupidity we are defenceless. Here we can do nothing whether by protest or by force. Reasoning has no effect. Objective facts that go against the grain of prejudice are dismissed – in such cases the stupid person reveals critical faculties. If the facts simply can’t be overlooked, they will be sidelined as singular cases void of consequence. In acting thus, the stupid – in contrast to the evil – person is wholly pleased with him or herself; indeed he or she becomes dangerous, easily provoked to attack. Greater care, then, is called for in confronting stupidity than in confronting wickedness.

Bonhoeffer was hanged in Flossenbürg at dawn on 9 April 1945. He wrote to his friend Bishop George Bell: ‘This is the end — but for me, the beginning of life.’ He was a grain of wheat sown in the dark earth. What a harvest that seed has produced!

So, my friends, this is what a Christian destiny can look like in our own day. It has a tragic dimension; but it is neither morose nor bitter. On the contrary, it is marked by lightness, joy, human warmth and a peculiar, irresistibly attractive freedom. It is right to be mindful of this today, on the feast of St Olav, the martyr.


Bonhoeffer in 1939, when he could still move freely, on his way to America. In those days gentlemen wore ties for sunbathing.

Photo reproduced on the site of the museum KZ Flossenbürg.