Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life St. Olaf of Norway, King and Martyr.
Norway’s Viking King Olav II would be a most unlikely candidate for sainthood- after all, Vikings were to be feared, not to be revered. Times have changed. When the word Viking was introduced into the English language, it was given romanticized heroic overtones. Some Vikings today are even considered to be warm and friendly. The most famous Viking in America is the slovenly, overfed cartoon character, Hägar the Horrible. Hagar is both a fierce warrior and a family man—with the same problems as your average modern suburbanite. One of my favorite panels depicts Hagar speaking to his knowledgeable and bookish son Hamlet. His son asks, “Dad, what do I tell people when they ask me what I am?” Hagar replies, “Just tell them you are a Viking.” To which Hamlet responds, “Can I tell them I’m Norwegian?” Hagar, shakes his head, “No, that would be bragging.”
Vikings, however, were not always a welcome and hospitable force. In England, the Viking age began June 8th, 793 when Norsemen in their long ships attacked and destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne, a center of learning. Monks were killed in the abbey, thrown into the sea to drown, or carried away as slaves along with the church treasures. This gave rise to the traditional prayer. “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, Lord.” The Viking Age ended 300 years later in 1066 back in England with the defeat of the Norsemen at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. For those 300 years in between, the word Viking was synonymous was ruthless pirates. They were masters of the sea who attacked quickly, killed, plundered and then returned to the sea.
Back in the homeland of Scandinavia, the Vikings were primarily farmers and fishermen who needed more land for a growing population. During the Viking Age, around 200,000 people left Scandinavia to settle in other lands, including Ireland, England, Scotland, and Normandy. They founded cities such as Dublin, Limerick and Cork and ruled large portions of Britain. One of the greatest rulers was King Cnut and ruled over both Denmark and England. He worked to create a north Atlantic empire that would unite Scandinavia and Britain.
St. Olaf was part of the violent Viking tradition. It is no wonder that his symbol, which is seen on the coat of arms is a lion with a battle axe. Olav II Haraldsson was born in 995 as the son of the Viking king Harald Grenske who was the great grandson of Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway. At age 12, Olav was introduced to the life as a Viking at sea. He appeared to have no conscience. He raided first in the Baltic Sea, and then at age 14, he joined in a raid against England which resulted in the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Olav became a skilled military strategist. In fact, one of the oldest songs in the English language may be attributed to St. Olav. In his battle for London, Olav’s soldiers tied ropes to the Bridge of London, and then to their long ships to tear the bridge down. Hence, the song, London Bridge is falling down, falling down.
From England, Olav headed south along the Spanish coast where he had a dream. In his dream, Olav saw a strong and powerful man who told him to abandon his plans for a voyage into the Mediterranean. “Go back to Norway and you will be king of all of Norway for all time.” But Olav didn’t return quite yet. Instead, he joined the service with the Duke of Normandy, who was himself a descendent of Norwegian Vikings. This was the turning point in Olav’s life. When he was 19 years old Olav stayed in Rouen, France, for many months at the Duke’s court. Though Christianity had already been introduced in Norway a generation earlier, it was during his stay in Normandy that Olav was taught Christianity by the Duke’s own brother, Archbishop Robert of Rouen, and was baptized in Rouen 1014.
One of the greatest impressions made on young Olav came from hearing the story of King Charlemagne. This mighty king of the Franks who had lived some two hundred years before Olav’s time, had united much of Europe, established peace and law, and brought the people into the Christian faith. That Charlemagne had accomplished these things by the sword made him even more appealing to Olav’s Viking heart. Olav resolved to do for Norway what Charlemagne had done for the pagan tribesmen of Europe. And so he returned to Norway along with bishops, monks and a small army.
Olav, however, had to put his missionary work on hold while he negotiated with the different powers. It did not take him long to assemble an army and ships enough to defeat some of the smaller kings. First he conquered the south, and then headed north. In1016 he was elected king, over all of Norway. Now he could begin the task of Christianizing the nation. Olav saw to this with his usual enthusiasm. The pagan Norse gods were no match for him, either because they were devils and subject to Christ, or because they had never existed in the first place. He threw down the idols, had their worshippers either killed or baptized. Once the pagan gods had been ousted, the Church could be organized.
During his 15 years as king of Norway, Olav experienced great progress towards uniting and building a Christian kingdom, but he also faced strong resistance from important leaders who had made an alliance with the English-Danish king, Cnut the Great. In 1028, Olav was forced to flee Norway and spend the next two years in Novgorod at the court of Yaroslav I, Grand Prince of Russia.
In 1030 king Olav once again had a dream which he interpreted as a call to go back home and fight for his country. After much soul searching, Olav decided that he and his men would go back to Norway, a land once more in chaos. As the king saw it, they would do God’s will and accept the consequences. His followers were equally committed. As their neared the territory, word came that the clans of Norway had also massed a great army.
The king’s army, according to the sagas, faced their fate with joy. Right before the battle, Olav had a dream which seemed to indicate both his death and his victory. In the dream, he was, like Jacob, climbing a ladder to heaven. At the top of the ladder, he was greeted by the same strong man who had spoken to him before, but now understood that it was Christ.
Olav arrived at Stiklestad with a small army and was killed at a battle there on July 29th. It was a good fight, but Olav was in the end brought down. One version of the story is that he threw away his sword at the end, waiting on the will of God. This may be a pious legend –or it may be that the king had seen something beyond the earthly battle which the others did not see. Whatever the details, he died of a spear wound, cut down in the midst of his enemies.
That might have been the end of the story, but a year later, people described miracles of healing and started to say that Olav was a holy man. They convinced the Bishop Grimkell who had travelled with Olav to Norway to open the grave. To their surprise, the king looked like he had been sleeping, his hair and nails had grown, his skin was fresh and a wonderful fragrance came up from the coffin. Bishop Grimkell declared the martyred king a saint in the year 1031. The relics were transferred to the royal city of Trondheim and the pilgrimages to the burial place of the sainted Viking king started immediately. 120 years later, the building of the magnificent cathedral of Nidaros to house the remains of St. Olav was begun.
So what does the story of St. Olav, King and Martyr have to tell us today? It certainly isn’t a model for missionary work or that the end justifies the means. If nothing else, we are reminded that the church’s greatest tasks often fall to the most unlikely hands men and women. To be sure, God has his orderly and conventional saints – but then there are those great, violent men, like St. Paul and St. Olav, who somehow, were transformed by God’s grace into mighty instruments for the conversion of whole nations. One thousand years ago, the violent pagan world came to an end, replaced by a Christian Scandinavia, and the kingdom of Norway emerged in that midst of that change.
In the mid-19th century, there was a rediscovery of northern Europe’s Viking past. It was a fascination shared by musicians, historians and politicians alike. Richard Wagner was drawn by the gods of the north in his operas; historians were excited by the discovery of the first wooden long ships uncovered in Norway, and politicians were embracing the Viking sagas as a part of their rising sense of nationalism. Having been in a political union with Denmark under the Danish king for 400 years, and then subsequently in the new union between Sweden and Norway under the Swedish king, Norwegians especially looked back to their Viking era kings and sagas. The Viking King Olav II, St. Olaf became the Norwegians most important symbol of their once independent kingdom, and their unifying Christian faith. And so his name became associated with all things Norwegian by at home and in the immigrant community settling in America. Even today, his legacy reminds us that as Christians we have called to live and work for a kingdom greater than our own. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.