The signs of times seem to be that we are the last generation to live in a culture formed and marked by the Christian faith. Having closed its mind to Christianity, the European culture is itself imploding as the Christian faith was the common basis. The parallel collapse of faith and culture forces us to ask what the future will be like.

Icon of St Basil the great

Relevant as the question is, we must have in mind that we are not the first to to fear the future. To take one example, St. Basil the Great in the fourth century wrote: “A darkness full of gloom and misery has descended on the churches… The terror of universal destruction already hangs over us, yet they (i.e. the faithful with the church leaders) continue to enjoy their rivalries, ignoring the sense of danger.” (On the Holy Spirit, 77)

The Church survived the crisis of his time, but it is interesting that St. Basil pointed to the internal state of the churches as the real danger in the situation. We recognize a similar challenge in our predicament.  Now, as then, party spirit and pride undermine a unified response to the challenge. The present “darkness full of gloom” must be met in two ways, first by a reconciliation between the churches and second by the renewal of the individual.

The ecumenical imperative

When Jesus prayed for his disciples “that they all be one” (Joh 17:21), he gave an ecumenical imperative. In order to bear fruit, unity among Christians is required (15:4f). The question is how we are to fulfill his wish. In well meant ecumenism there is, a danger of “indifferentism” – the willful neglect of real issues – but inversely, there is also the parallel danger in denominational “integralism” – arrogance on behalf of one’s own consuming traditions.

Interestingly, the dialogue between the Old Catholics and the Orthodox in the 1980s concludes that eucharistic fellowship does not require the subjection of one church with its tradition to the other church. In order to establish fellowship, it is necessary not only to check carefully whether they are close enough to each other, but also whether the differences are so significant that separation must continue to exist. With this “matter of fact” attitude the document concludes that churches united in full communion will fulfill their responsibilities to the world not isolated from each other, but on principle together. (Koinonia auf altkirchlicher Basis, 1989: 228. For the text in English, see The Road to Unity, VII,7f)

Clearly the common ground between Old Catholicism and Orthodoxy is the faith of the undivided church of the first millennium However, this platform opens up a way for broader reconciliation as in 1995 Pope John Paul II similarly proposed that the unity in the first millennium between the East and the West can serve as the model for restoring full communion (Ut unum sint, 1995, 55). Moreover, the patristic patrimony of Anglicanism also embraces this model for unity. Likewise, as is shown by the explicit commitment of Lutheran orthodoxy to the Church Fathers, confessional Lutheranism understands itself as based upon the Nicene Creed.

The renewal of the individual

Confronted with an uncertain future, a mood of gloom has descended on the crumbling churches. The rapid decline in church attendance everywhere makes the churchgoer bewildered and disoriented. In order to find a way forward, we must return to basics and listen to the Apostolic exhortations to the young churches in the New Testament letters. Strengthening the faithful, St. Paul and St. Peter admonish them to trample down despair under the hope of the cross.

Among the many New Testament texts which encourage us to stand firm in the faith, I have found particular consolation in St. Paul’s admonitions to the church in Rome: “Let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:4f)

Clearly, St. Paul understands the tribulations of Christians as a purification process. By placing hope in God the patience matures the mind into a “proven character”. Thus, the more we recognize our weakness, the more our hearts are purified by the Holy Spirit so that we can find peace in God through Jesus Christ. 

Fellowship with other disciples, living and dead

In addressing the congregation in Rome, it is striking that the Apostle encourages the individual as a member of the faith community. The proven character and the hopeful heart follow from the discipline learned in the Christian fellowship. St. Peter’s admonition is no different: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 6:.6ff)



At the end of the millennium, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard reflected on the implosion of social institutions in Western postmodern societies. Among his many observations on the present times, he noted this paradox, that “things – signs and actions – continue to function long after their ideas have disappeared, and they do so in total indifference to their own content… A thing which has lost its idea is like a man who has lost his shadow, and it must either fall under the sway of madness or perish” (The Transparency of Evil, 1993:6).

The most influential Orthodox theologian in the West at this time, Alexander Schmemann, wrote in his diary: “Christianity in general (is) now undergoing a real test to determine what will enable (us) to remain alive in the world of today” (The Journals, 2002:24).

It makes sense to read the last quote in the light of the first. Clearly, today, the very identity of the church is threatened as mainstream Christianity seems to have lost the idea of what it means to be the Church of Christ in the world.

The root of this confusion is to be found in the Enlightenment’s understanding of religion, where Christianity in particular is considered to be pure obscurantism, because its religious claims cannot be proved by reason. Despite this reservation, a deistic notion of a Supreme Being was still warmly embraced. To use Montesquieu’s expression, “A little bit of religion”, can serve as social glue and induce motivation for good deeds. In the same vein “sin” must be redefined as those things which hinder the common good. Consequently, “the truth” of religious ideas is pragmatically decided according to the criterion of political usefulness. From this position, Rousseau praises the virtues of Islam over against Christianity as the Christian faith falsely distinguishes the temporal and the spiritual, the religious and the political.

Nevertheless, in certain church quarters today, the pulpit is used as platform for their “leftist” agenda. Usually, their “progressive” statements are very clear and direct but paradoxically silence reigns about the present conflicts around core issues in Christian ethics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Of course, the rejection of the role of churches as one-sided political activists is not to say that there is no need for social change in today’s world. The point is simply that social justice is mankind’s common ethical endeavour across religious lines. “Political” statements must therefore be expressed in the name of reason and not from the pulpit on behalf private sympathies, be it in one way or another.

Moreover, there are enough historical examples to show that political compliance will not legitimate the Christian faith in the eyes of the given establishment but rather breed contempt.

The Life of the Church in the World – A Eucharistic Other-worldliness

The God given task of the Christian Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. This is the one standard by which the mission of the Church must be judged. The grace of God calls people to repentance and holiness. Thus a demarcation line is set between faith and unbelief. Alienated from the Gospel truths, the “Church” becomes an empty shell. In fact, the substitution of the biblical narrative with moral appeals has made the original message of Christianity disappear, to return to the quote from Baudrillard.

What are we then to do to overcome this loss of faith? Alexander Schmemann prescribed his vision for renewal by saying that we must recover an eschatological understanding of life itself, an “other-worldliness” derived from the Eucharist as the center of Christian living. Christians must see this world in Christ and through Christ.

In this perspective we approach the current crisis of faith by returning to the basis of the Christian pilgrimage in the present world. With the liturgical exclamation “Come Lord Jesus”, the Eucharist proclaims the Healing of the nations and Paradise regained (Rev. 22:20). Thus, the Eucharistic Assembly proclaims the coming world, while at the same time manifesting the Church in this world as a present community. Gathered around the Eucharistic table, the altar, as the people of God (1 Cor. 10:16f), we nourish the faith, love and hope which give meaning and value to everything in life (13:13).

The story of Pentecost is the archetype of this communion. The Apostles are gathered to receive the Holy Spirit “with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1f). Faith is essentially the power of union, the miracle that arises between men and women in the love of Christ and in love for Christ. The Church is not set in this world for any other reason than to be the body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).



In the gospels of St. Mathew and St. Luke we find with the same wording a saying of Jesus often called “The Hymn of Jubilation”. We read: “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been delivered to me by my Father'” (Matthew 11:25f, Luke 10:21f).

Jesus seems here to refer to Jeremiah’s prophesy of a new covenant when God will reveal himself directly to his chosen people: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:31,33).

Inviting his disciples to the Kingdom of God, Jesus presents himself as the fulfilment of these prophesies. Through him, God the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, reveals his will to the hearts of the faithful. The stumbling block is that this revelation springs out of God’s own initiative in contrast to human cunning and sagacity. Moreover, it must be received in humility. The knowledge of God is given to “babes”.

Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus refers to his disciples as “the poor in spirit”, “the pure in heart” or “the lowly” (Matthew 5:3,8; Luke 1: 52). In a similar vein, St. Paul paradoxically demands that “the wise of this world, must become a fool, that he may become wise” (1 Cor. 3:18).

Does this mean that the knowledge of God is reduced to an esoteric, gnostic wisdom? Truly, St. Paul teaches that “the spirit of wisdom and knowledge of God comes through the eyes of our heart being enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). However, this is not an invitation to arbitrariness. We are simply invited to interpret life in the light of the faith.

This faith perspective is summarized by St.Augustine with the phrase Credo ut intelligam – I believe so that I can understand. Augustine illustrates this insight with a wordplay found in the Greek version of the book of Isaiah: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not understand” (7:9).

In his autobiographic work, Confessions, St. Augustine gives an easy accessible introduction to his thinking about the relationship between faith and reason.

Man’s capacity to grasp true understanding of God requires the healing of pride and the fostering of love. Quoting the Hymn of Jubilation, St Augustine maintains that knowledge of God must be learned from Christ who himself was meek and lowly of heart. With Christ as the light of our heart – Lumen cordis – the mind can conceive the truth knowing things through God rather than God through things.


This Augustinian approach to knowledge was taken up 1200 years later by Pascal. His instrumental epistemology concludes that governed by the will, reason can neither prove nor disapprove the existence of God. However, this resignation does not mean that man is spiritually blind. For there is another path in man’s search for God. Our life experience, the wisdom man gains as he lives, feels and thinks, opens the mind to receive the mystery of God, the Father and Lord of heaven and earth. This wisdom, seen with the “eyes of the heart enlightened by God”, is what Pascal speaks of in his famous maxim: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

+Roald Nikolai



What is Mary’s place in the history of Salvation? The best answer is given in the form of a follow-up question: If Jesus is the Son of God who is then his mother?

The child Mary bore in her womb is Christ, the Incarnate word of God. Therefore, the early councils honoured her as the Theotokos – the God-bearer. The sign for this was given by her cousin Elizabeth who greeted the pregnant Mary with the words: «Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb» (Luke 1:42).

Botticelli - Annunciation

In his poems on Mary, the Church Father Ephrem the Syrian (303-373) explains Mary’s amazement of giving birth to the Christ:


«How shall I call you,
O stranger to us
who became one of us?
Shall I call you ‘Son’?
Shall I call you ‘Brother’?
Shall I call you ‘Bridegroom’?
Shall i call you ‘Lord’?
Begetter of his Mother.
By a second birth
from out of the waters!»

(Sebastian Brock, 1975)

By referring at the end to Mary’s baptism, Ephrem understands her relationship to Jesus as a «two-way birth». First Jesus takes on Mary’s body as her son, then Mary takes on Jesus’ glory as a new birth. Thus, through his imagery and parallelism Ephrem, known as «Harp of the Spirit», brings Mary and the Christian believer close together.

A poetical adaption into Norwegian expresses the symbolic imagery in the following way:

«Da Jesus Kristus ble vår bror,
da ble Maria vår egen mor,
vår Far ble ham som i himlen bor,
Jesus og Maria.

I stallen fant Guds moder ly,
hun fødte ham i Davids by,
da var all verden som født på ny,
Jesus og Maria.

Ved Ånden fødes Gud og mann,
hun fødte ham i Juda land,
og vi ble født utav dåpens vann,
Jesus og Maria.»

(Börre Knudsen, 1976)

The mariology developed in Ephrem’s poems to Our Lady is very different from the Roman Catholic understanding of Mary as the mediatrix. Ephrem does not pray to Mary but he prays with her to Christ. Mary is not a distant intercessor, the Queen of Heaven, but she is the Mother of the Church, one of us and one with us.



Let me start by stating the obvious, we are living in a secular culture which has made the right of self-realisation the highest value to be sought. My happiness is the meaning of life. Of course, to say that I am responsible for my own life is not a false insight but even if we embark in the pursuit of the highest human ideals, it may end up as a sort of self-absorption. My fellow man can easily be seen to stand in my way and when we speak of God we have in mind a vague presence who wants us to be good. So beyond that, is there nothing more is to be said?

The biblical message is that God is not only the source of life but also my judge. God does not not fade away simply because man wants to be the master of the universe. Thus, St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to take a step back not to be blinded by what he calls the Spirit of the Age: «Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise» (1 Cor 3:18, see 2 Cor 4:4). Despite the values and norms dominating the culture around us, we Christians must take seriously that in the end we are to stand responsible before God: «Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves», he instructs the Corinthians (2 Cor 13:5). Likewise he tells the Galatians: «Let each one examine his own work … for each one shall bear his own load» (Gal 6:4f).

What is then the way the Christian shall pursue to happiness? St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is that they must take proper care of their spiritual life: «Beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God» (2 Cor 7:1, 1 Cor 6:11). Likewise, in the light of the coming of Christ St. John encourages the children of God: «And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure» (1 John 3:3). Cleansed from sin, we shall be dedicated to God. Clearly this is an invitation to enter the narrow gate. Our pursuit of happiness involves a cleansing of the heart, a quest for holiness in the fear of God.


The cleansing reflects a genuine sorrow for our sins, as St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote to the faithful in Africa more than 1700 years ago about cleanliness of heart: «When it was brought to Jesus’ attention that his disciples had begun eating without having first washes their hands, he said in reply: ‘He who made the outside made the inside too. Give alms and all of you will be made clean’ (Luke 11:40f). Thus he taught that it was not your hands which should be washed but rather your heart and that uncleanness must be removed from the inside rather than from the outside. For they who have cleansed their inner selves have also cleansed what is outside, and they whose mind has been cleansed have also begun to purify their skin and body» (On works and alms, 2).



Since the Enlightenment it has been a common view that true religion must show its legitimacy by its moral usefulness. As an early response to this, moral theologians in the 19th century began to talk about «Christian values» in order to give a social legitimation to the faith. But to justify Christianity simply because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion.

Nevertheless, it is true that the three so-called cardinal virtues – faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13) – are natural virtues in the sense that they express qualities needed to uphold both the individual and communal life as such. But there is more to be said. The revolutionary message of the Gospel is that Christ transforms everything by renewing man’s living contact with God. By bringing human nature back to God, Christian life is not the antithesis of the natural. The difference the gospel makes, is giving mankind a new status in a covenant with God our Creator.

Already the ethics of the Decalogue is based on the idea of a new status between God and the people of Israel. The premise, the framework around the commandments, is that God’s mighty deeds have made the chosen people free: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.» What God demands for Himself is that the Hebrews be faithful: “You shall have no other gods before me» (Ex 20:2f). Among themselves they must live a decent life according to their new status: Because they are no longer slaves but free, the people of Israel must live as men of honor and show respect for their parents and abstain from murder, whoring, stealing and lying. However, these precepts are the rules of decent behaviour among gentlemen in any culture. The motivation is nevertheless specific because it is founded on the new status given in the covenant with God. Without this starting-point also Christian ethics are easily reduced to humanistic altruism.

The relationship between natural virtues and spiritual gifts becomes clear when St. Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit over against the work of the flesh. The Apostle exemplifies the work of the flesh among other sins as adultery, lewdness, hatred, selfish ambitions and envy. «By contrast», writes the Apostle, «the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things» (Gal 5:22f). Nobody can with reason maintain that these virtues are exclusively the privilege of Christians or deny that the work of the flesh takes its toll also on the believers.

This leads to the question: Is there then no specific Christian ethics – only spiritually qualified human virtues? The answer must be a clear yes and no!


The point is that by living and walking in the Spirit, the believer is invited to transcend himself and enter a «zone» of divine being and activity. Thus by imparting the Spirit into the faithful, God renews their humanity (Gal 5:16ff).

The moral challenge for Christians – like the people of the Old Covenant – is to live up to our new status as God’s children. Christ must be formed in us, explains the Apostle (Gal 4:19). To clarify this imitation of Christ, St Paul uses the the word «worthy». He admonishes the Philippians: «Let your conduct be worthy of the Gospel of Christ» (1:27). Likewise he beseeches the Ephesians: «to walk worthy of calling with which you have been called» (4:1). And the Colossians are told to »walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work» (Col. 1:10). Furthermore, he impresses upon the Thessalonians: «Walk in a manner worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory» (1 Thess 2:12).

Using the word «worthy» to qualify Christian living, the Apostle seems to refer back to God’s demands of the people of Israel at Sinai. In both cases the moral claims are based on the dignity given in new status before God. Our self-respect as believers must be manifested in a worthy way of life in the eyes of God and mankind.



«In the fullness of time God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law» (Gal. 4:4). With this short but substantial phrase St. Paul sums up the mystery of the incarnation.

Let us first notice the past tense. St. Paul sees the birth of Christ in the light God’s promise to Israel six centuries before when Isaias prophesied: «The Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel» (Is. 7:14). Thus, the virgin Mary by giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, makes manifest that God, when the time had come centuries later, acted to fulfill his divine plan.

This is in itself an amazing claim. At first sight the events that make up human history may seem to us like a senseless flow of time but now we are told that there is an inherent meaning to it all. For mysteriously twinned into what happens, then and now and in the future, is also hidden the history of our salvation. In the end God has the destiny of the whole world in his hands.

But the second insight to be drawn is even more astonishing. Despite being born of a humble woman in a stable, the child Jesus is God’s Son. In him the divine Logos has become man. Sharing the human condition, our Saviour is our brother: «The grace of God», explains St. Paul, is «the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many» (Rom. 5:15).

Who is then Mary? Willingly serving God’s purpose, she calls herself a «lowly maidservant» but by others she is hailed as “the Mother of the Lord”. She is «blessed among women, and blessed is is the fruit of your womb» (Luke 1:38,42f). All that the Lord had said through the prophet comes true in her. Her son Jesus is the Immanuel sign – «God with us» (Matt. 1:22f).

Nativity of Christ - Adoration of the Magi

Therefore, when the wise men from the East came to Bethlehem and saw the child Jesus in the manger, «they fell down and worshipped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to him; gold, frankincense and myrrh» (Matt. 2:11). Similarly the message to us on Christmas day is that we are to open our hearts to Jesus and worship him by giving to him ourselves as gifts. In this way, despite all the strange and troublesome things happening around us, we can with confidence enter our own place in the history of salvation.

Blessed Christmas!



Why do we make the sign of the cross? Clearly, it is a way of adding to the verbal prayer by sealing with our fingers. So let us ask what is the inherent symbolism expressed in this act? In order to understand the significance we must take into consideration that the sign of the cross until the Middle Ages was made on the forehead and not over the breast.

With this in mind the Old Testament roots of the custom becomes clear. The prophet Ezekiel is commanded by God to put «a mark on the forehead of those who sigh and groan over the abominations that are committed in Jerusalem» (Ez. 9:4). In this context the mark on the forehead is a sign of repentance and protection.

Yet another, more joyous meaning, is also connected with this custom. Pious Jews would mark themselves on the brow with the last letter of the alphabet as a symbol of God’s glory. The last letter is to symbolise the fullness and perfection of God’s creation. In Old Hebrew the last letter, tav, was written as + and later as T. This symbolism is also expressed in archaic Greek where the letter T is written either as + or as X.

Again we are reminded of this letter symbolism in the Apocalypse when the risen Christ is called «the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End, the First and the Last» ( 22:13). However, the letter symbolism was not only used to express Christ’s glory. Marking the forehead with the letter T or +, that is the cross, Judeo-Christians in the Early Church at the same time confirmed their faith and witnessed to the world that they lived in the new reality of the Resurrection of Christ. Thus the mark on the forehead would symbolise the cross of Christ as a sign of repentance and also serve as an expression of the joy of salvation.

Now this double meaning is also reflected in the baptismal ritual as St Cyril of Jerusalem explains the meaning of «the anointing of the forehead» to the cathecumens: «Great indeed is the baptism which is offered you. It is the ransom to captives; the remissions of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy indelible seal» (Mystagogical Catechises III:16, Protocatechesis 16). In fact, the understanding of baptism as an anointing and a sealing in the Spirit is common usage among the Church Fathers but has already been used by St Paul and also the Apocalypse (2 Cor. 1:21 f; Eph. 1:13 -15; Apoc. 7:4).

St John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom encourages the faithful to cross themselves with these words:

“When, then, you make the sign of the cross on the forehead, arm yourself with a saintly boldness, and reinstall your soul in its old liberty; for you are not ignorant that the cross is a prize beyond all price.

Consider what is the price given for your ransom, and you will never more be slave to any man on earth. This reward and ransom is the cross. You should not then, carelessly make the sign on the forehead, but you should impress it on your heart with the love of a fervent faith. Nothing impure will dare to molest you on seeing the weapon, which overcometh all things.”

A further meaning of the marking is protection and service. After the baptismal sealing we belong to the Lord as his property. We are like sheep branded with the mark of the Good Shepherd, like soldiers bearing the mark of the King. The baptismal seal is a sign of our enlistment in His army. This understanding of the baptismal seal is repeatedly used by the Church Fathers.

The metaphors of ownership and service is especially of help to us in understanding also the time of Advent. The word «advent» stems from military terminology meaning originally «inspection». So, Advent is the time set a part for those bearing the mark of the King. They shall prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. We do this humbly marking ourselves with a sign of repentance and at the same time knowing that we in Christ are protected with an indissoluble holy seal. In short, we make the sign of the cross because we belong to Christ the King.

Ikon Kristus Pantokrator - O. G. Svele



Van Gogh - The Sower - 1888

Having read this summer a little library of books on church growth and evangelising, I have obtained many useful insights into what makes a good parish. Still, I have not found a successful formula which can bring back the good old times when Sunday Mass was a natural part of European culture. There seems to be no easy fix to counter the secularisation of daily life. On the contrary, despite of our well meant endeavours, Western Christianity seems to be dying. The empty churches may signal that we are the last Christian generation.

In this climate, it is perhaps understandable that many parishes in desesperation try to lower the threshold, accommodating to modern culture by giving up traditional worship and instead adapting to forms of communication that we associate with the market place. To put aside what seems to be offensive to the modern mindset may give some results in the short run, but it is a blind alley as a way to growth. Rather than asking ourselves how to attract people to fill the pews, we must search for ways to grow spiritually. Our calling is to prepare ourselves for what looks like a long winter and thus lay the foundation for a bridgehead for the future.

Thus, the starting point should be a reflection on the nature of what we call mission and evangelisation. Fortunately, the Lord himself enlightens us when in the great commission, He urges the apostles to make disciples baptising and teaching them as he had commanded (Matt 28:19f).

Jesus describes the task of his disciples then and now as a form of harvesting (Joh 4:35ff). As labourers in God’s field reaping his harvest (Matt 9:37f, 1 Cor 3:6f), our evangelising is part of God’s salvation history and must therefore be understood in an eschatological perspective (Apoc 14:15). We are acting in God’s name adding to the church those to be saved (Acts 2:41,47). Thus, with Christ as the cornerstone the church grows into a ”holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21f). This is real church growth.

Understood in this perspective, what we call evangelisation must be seen as our participation in God’s own work. Consequently, it is God who gives us growth (Matt 9:37). We are only sowers and the seed is the word of God (Luk 8:5ff). Whether we are many or few will in the end be God’s own decision. Paradoxically, this does not mean that we are free from the great commission. The parable of the talents teaches us that we are under obligation to put ourselves and our resources at God’s disposition knowing that we are but worthless servants.

In the perspective of salvation history, the Father is the sower and Jesus is the reaper who sends his disciples to collect the harvest. The English hymn We plough the Fields expresses this penetration of God’s mystery in relation to our work:

We plough the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.

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Olavsantemensalet - ca 1300

As we are approaching the Solemnity of St. Olaf on July 29, it must be said that the memory of the patron saint of Norway is very much alive. He is still a part of our cultural heritage in the Nordic countries and this year we celebrate the millennium of his baptism in Rouen i 1014.

Over the years his sainthood has in some quarters also been met with irony and scepticism – Can a viking mercenary with bloody hands be called a saint? Of course, the Medieval Church did not necessarily evaluate the criteria for sainthood as an expression of personal «holiness». Thus St. Olaf was honoured as martyr and not for his private piety.

Hellig Olav på Nidarosdomens vestfront

The complicated personality of the viking king is clearly expressed in the iconography of St. Olaf. His attributes are a crown, an axe and an allegorical creature underneath his feet. The crown places him among Christian kings like Constantine and Charlemagne. The axe expresses on the one hand his authority as lawmaker, but serves also as a reminder that the axe was the instrument of his martyrium. The dragon under his feet carries a face like his own and is usually interpreted as an allegorical expression of his struggle for a better self. In short, St. Olaf was seen to be a soldier of God protecting laws of society, a royal martyr and a saint who triumphed over evil.

St. Olaf was the first saint to be recognised in Scandinavia. Within the Nordic region, the shrine of St. Olaf in Nidaros (Trondheim) was the oldest known and most important destination for pilgrims. Churches were dedicated to his name from Greenland to Constantinople. Not least in England was this saint popular, with seven churches dedicated to him in London alone.

Nidarosdomen - vestfronten

It is estimated that in the Middle Ages around 40 000 took part in the yearly pilgrimage to his grave in the cathedral at Nidaros. All this came to an end after 1537 when the Danish King Christian III invaded Norway. He realised that the political importance of St. Olaf as a symbol of Norwegian statehood – Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae – needed to be destroyed, and he also had an eye on the riches of the cathedral. But that is the beginning of another story – the decline of Norway in the centuries following the Reformation.

Ora pro nobis, Sancte Olave!