Words on the Word

Olsok – Feast of St Olav

Wisdom 10:10-14: Wisdom came to his aid.
James 1:2-4, 12: Blessed is he who endures temptation!
Matthew 16:24-28: Some standing here will not taste death.  

Seven years are left before we mark the millennium of the Battle of Stiklestad in which St Olav died. Public debate is already intense. It will no doubt grow in intensity. People ask: What exactly will we be celebrating?

There is no shortage of pundits. The resolute pluralism of our time, based on the image of a platform broad enough to have room for everyone, finds creative expression. We are told that there are multiple accounts of Olav, accounts that can be read in multiple ways, indeed that Olav’s legacy is itself defined by pluralism. Olav, it is said, was ‘made’ a saint, then ‘transformed’ into a national symbol, but who and what was he? The City of Trondheim seems to assume that even his death at Stiklestad is a legend – that, at any rate, is announced on an official sign by St Olav’s Well.

It is dizzying to walk on such shifting ground. One easily understands why an historical focus has been repurposed as a mirror in which we gaze upon ourselves. The National Jubile intends, as an institution, to home in on ‘social sustainable strength in society’, leading up to a resounding Hurrah! for the existence of our nation.

It might be useful to specify a couple of things. Neither now nor in the eleventh century has it been the Church’s business to ‘make’ saints. The title of saint is not a reward for good behaviour, nor the celestial equivalent of a peerage. The Church does not fabricate saints. It ‘declares’ them. That is to say, it affirms, at times with astonishment, that here, in this particular life, there is concrete evidence of God’s transforming agency. The saints testify to God’s power, not to the excellence of individuals.

God’s power, writes St Paul, is perfected in our weakness. In the Church’s preface for Martyrs, we are told: ‘in our weakness you perfect your power and on the feeble bestow strength to bear you witness, through Christ our Lord.’ What Christians for a thousand years have recognised in Olav is a fragile vessel containing a treasure, a luminous treasure shining through the dust of which he was made, shedding, beyond his death, a consoling radiance of God’s glory.

The proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ began with the exclamation: ‘He is not here!’ The corpse that on Friday was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea could not be located on Sunday. Unrest broke out. John movingly describes the frenetic distress of Mary Magdalene. Into this chaos the Risen One enters and says, ‘Peace be with you!’

What had happened to Jesus in death altered the disciples’ perspective decisively. The resurrection introduced a new hermeneutic. All that had happened before was re-read and re-interpreted in the light of this total newness: certainty that God had wrought a wondrous death-defying work in his Anointed. The previous history could only be truly seen in the light of Jesus’s victory over death.

We see a certain parallel in the story about Olav. What happened to him in death permits us to grasp the significance of his life. The first witness to this fact, remarkably, was one of his assassins, Tore Hund. When the Battle of Stiklestad was over and Olav’s forces scattered, the peasant army remained victorious. Tore then went over to the king’s dead body to arrange it — he was honourable enough to wish to perform this act of reverence.

When Tore cleaned the blood away from Olav’s face, he said later, it was indescribably beautiful: ‘His cheeks were red as if he were asleep, and his face was much brighter than before, when he was alive.’ Olav’s blood touched Tore’s hand and flowed into a wound he had incurred. ‘There was no need later to bind up that wound, so quickly did it heal.’ That same evening something similar happened by the shed in which Olav’s body had been laid out. A blind man tripped and fell where the women had chucked out the water used for washing. When he touched his face with moist hands, his sight was restored. Thus it went on. People came in droves to pray before Olav’s remains. They found comfort and healing. It happens to this day. We have in our midst some who have been healed of grave illness after praying before St Olav’s relics.

A year after Olav’s death his body was exhumed. The English Bishop Grimkjell was there, likewise the Danish King Svein and his crotchety old mother Alfiva, Olav’s sworn enemy. A lovely perfume spread abroad from the coffin. When it was opened people saw again this striking thing: Olav’s red cheeks. He looked as if he had just fallen asleep. His hair and nails had grown. Once again an enemy becomes a paradoxical witness. Snorre recounts the indignant grunts uttered by the queen when it was found that Olav’s hair, cast into the fire, did not burn. Mysteriously, Life was active in this man who was dead.

From the beginning, the scandal of Christianity has been its concreteness. The thought of the immortality of the soul is common to many cultures. But the assertion that our flesh is made to rise, that our physical being is imbued with eternity, is more than most people can bear. This, though, is the foundation of our faith. We find it confirmed in the saints. And we recognise a breath of divine power in our own longing, an expression of Jesus’s promise: ‘Some standing here will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Here and now we see as in a mirror, a reflection. But still. Let us hold firm to what is palpable and real in the legacy of St Olav and leave it to the secular authority to bask in fantastical abstractions. The National Jubilee is said to ‘value difference’. The state quite naturally construes difference horizontally. To follow the vertical axis open towards heaven, to understand and communicate St Olav’s life and death as an encounter with the categorically Other, the Source of life, is our task, our responsibility.

Let us take it seriously.


The Olav antependium painted about the year 1300.