Easter ritual

“The great bulk of the population being absent at the fishing-places, there was no public worship at Stadarhraun; yet I was in no ordinary degree interested by witnessing the piety and devotion manifested by the clergyman and his family, eight in number, in the exercise of their domestic worship. We assembled round the altar, which was extremely simple, consisting merely of a coarse wooden table, when several appropriate psalms were sung in a very lively manner, after which a solemn and impressive prayer was offered up, the females, meanwhile, placing their hands on their faces, so as entirely to cover their eyes. The clergyman now read an excellent sermon on Regeneration, from Vidalin’s collection, which is in great repute over the whole island, and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to perpetuate a clear and distinct knowledge of the fundamental principles of Christianity among the natives. The service concluded with singing and prayer; after which, the members of the family gave each other the primitive kiss; and I could discover, from the joy that beamed in every eye, the actual increase of happiness derived from their renewed approach to the Fountain of Bliss.”
This quote is from Iceland; or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815 by Ebenezer Henderson. I would have preferred to have had a description of an Easter service but found  none in my sources. Yet, it serves the purpose.
Our Icelandic ancestors were both superstitious and religious. The superstition began to fade with more contact with the outside world. The appearance of steam ships meant that schedules could be set and followed. No longer were trips to and from Iceland constantly disrupted or aborted because of the weather. Certainty begat traffic in both directions and, with the increased contact, scientific knowledge spread. However, the hold of superstition resurfaced with the widespread belief in spiritualism.
There is more evidence of religious belief in the time of emigration than of superstition simply because of the large number of bibles brought with the settlers. It is further evidenced by the passionate, and often, divisive religious debates that fractured the community. People took their religion seriously.
However, those black bibles have largely succumbed to mould and death. Few people in North America can read the Icelandic. The Icelandic bibles haven’t been replaced with English bibles. Society, blame or credit who you will, education, TV, the rise of materialism, advertising, mechanization, multiculturalism, pick your favorite culprit, has become more and more secular. Christmas now belongs to a fellow with a dozen magical reindeer and the maxing out of credit cards on gifts. 
The suffering, death and resurrection of Christ has been replaced by a bunch of rabbits hopping about with chocolate candy to give as gifts. Even the Lamb of God has faded to insignificance, its connection to Christ mostly unknown.

Few celebrate Easter by saying, “Christ is risen.” Or replying, “Truly, Christ has risen.”
My own memories of Sunday school and church when I was a child and teenager are strong but most of those memories center on Christmas, the three wise men, the cradle, Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. I have only the vaguest memories of Easter. Perhaps, it was all too complicated, with this day and that day. The image of the Last Supper, of Christ on the cross is strong, and so is the image of the open tomb but it is as if the Church (I use a capital C because, this comment falls not just at the door of the Lutheran church) has taken this time for itself, made it an insider’s time of complexity. Perhaps in other religions or other countries where there is still public ritual attached to the death and resurrection of Christ, the meaning of this time is still understood and preserved but not here in North America.
However, a search of the internet about Easter in Iceland returned posts about meals, going to the countryside, visiting with family, having four days holiday and competitions among families as to who could give their children the largest Easter egg. In Canada, the trend is similar. Easter is a holiday, a time for getting family together for a large meal (no reference to the Last Supper), the giving of Easter cards picturing rabbits with baskets full of chocolate eggs, and the giving of Easter eggs.
For me, my memories of Easter are secular, the religious rituals, if there ever were any, forgotten. The memories are of family being together, of cooking them a large brunch, of an Easter egg hunt by the youngest members of the family searching out chocolate eggs with the names of the guests on them. The only religious symbol seems to have been the cross on the hot cross buns but I don’t think anyone, including me, thought to explain the significance.
What is it that separates us from the family that Ebenezer Henderson describes during his year in Iceland? What, in spite of their poverty, did they have that we, with our prosperity, have lost?
Religion was a big part of being Icelandic. It seems, sometimes, without the faith our families had that helped them weather the hardest of hard times, our Icelandicness is less than what it could be.
  

Intergalactic Resurrection



The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me.
It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we´ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they´ll think its about glaciers.
As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community.
But there´s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness´s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn´t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun.
What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says ‚ “PIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves.
The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated. 
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy.  “The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.”
In 1872 when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much.  He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic.
When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He´s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor´s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true. 
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann. 
Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection.
Jón Primus, in reply to Godman´s theories, replies , “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions.
Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host both in Iceland and North America has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra , Jón Primus´s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to .
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Icelandic Bibles

I used to find boxes of Icelandic books and magazines on my doorstep. When it happened, I’d know that someone’s amma or afi had gone into a nursing home or died and the sons and daughters didn’t know what to do with her treasured books, probably didn’t read Icelandic, and because of my work with the Beck Trust, assumed that I’d know what to do. I also was given Icelandic books when I was in Gimli. Gradually, the books filled forty-five boxes–if I remember correctly.

There were, unfortunately, no unknown copies of the sagas. Most of the books were religious in nature. First, there were copies of the Bible. Boxes of them. Well worn from use. Black covers, different sizes; at some time, they’d sat in the trunk of a person emigrating from Iceland. Their owners often had few belongings, little money, the trip was long, the wooden trunks heavy, but the Bibles couldn’t be left behind. They’d provided solace in Iceland, where times were hard, death was frequent, hunger was always threatening, where individuals were helpless in the face of cold weather, avalanches, volcanic eruptions. The trip to Granton, from there to Quebec City, from there to Nova Scotia or Ontario and, finally, to New Iceland, was marked by graves. The Bibles got plenty of use.

Many of these Bibles may have started their journey in England. Ebenezer Henderson, went to Iceland in 1814, stayed over the winter, and left Iceland in the fall of 1815. His purpose was to find out if the Icelanders needed Bibles and, if they did, to distribute Bibles provided by the British and Foreign Bible Society. He wanted to establish an organization that’s purpose would be the distribution of Bibles.

Henderson was an amazing individual. Although Scottish, he lived in Denmark, and became pastor at Elsinore. From about 1806, he spent his time arranging the distribution of Bibles in Scandinavia. He visited Sweden, Lapland, Iceland and part of Germany.

He was a highly accomplished linguist. According to his biography in Wickipedia, “He made himself more or less acquainted, not only with the ordinary languages of scholarly accomplishment and the various members of the Scandinavian group, but also with Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, Russian, Arabic, Tatar, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Manchu, Mongolian and Coptic.”

Therefore, when he says things like the Icelanders have a high degree of religious knowledge, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s surprised at this knowledge, because few people actually have a Bible. However, “almost every family is in possession of a volume of excellent sermons, written by Biship Vidalin of Skalholt.”

He also says that the poverty of the Icelanders is such that a new edition of the Bible could not be printed locally.

He makes two extensive trips around Iceland. He lives in a tent. He faces unknown dangers but nothing is going to stop him from selling and giving away Bibles. At Tiörnabæ he sold a Bible and New Testament to the farmer. Then, as he was going back to his tent, “two servant girls came running with money in their hands, and wished to have each a New Testament.” He was short of copies and suggests that they read the farmer’s copies. He then sends for the two poorest people in the district and gave each of them a Testament. An old man and a young man come to see him. “He (the old man) thanked me with tears in his eyes, and rode home quite overjoyed with the gift he had received.”

A number of people had gathered outside his tent. Henderson then asked the poor young man to whom he had given a New Testament to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John. “He had hardly begun, when they all sat down, or knelt on the grass, and listened with the most devout attention. As he proceeded, the tears began to trickle down their cheeks, and they were all seemingly much affected.”

Later, Henderson arrives at Hals and finds the minister, Sira Sigurdr, the clergyman making hay. They retire to the house and the minister says that his three parishes could use a large number of Bibles and New Testaments. The next day Henderson goes to church and Sira Sigurdr gives the service. The service begins around two o’clock because “the Icelanders have their sheep to collect and milk, the horses on which they are to ride to seek and drive home, and themselves to dress”.

“The parish of Fliotshverfi, of which Sira Jon is the minister, contains only a population of about seventy souls; the tract having been much injured by the volcanic eruptions…yet, among that number of people, there only existed one Bible, besides the copy belonging to the church…they had ultimately given up all hopes of ever seeing them more.”

On Sunday, May 21st, Henderson is at Stadarhraun. There is no public service as nearly everyone is away fishing. However, the clergyman, his wife and children assemble around the altar of the church. Psalms were sung, a prayer was said, the women placed their hands flat on their faces so as to cover their eyes. A sermon was read from Vidalin’s collection, then there was singing and a prayer.

Many distinguished, notable visitors came to Iceland in the 1800s but Henderson is one of the few who risked staying over the winter. His passion for the distribution of Bibles overcomes everything, including the Icelandic darkness. If you have an old Icelandic Bible in the family, take it out, hold it, open it, look at it, wonder about where it has been. It is a far traveller. We now are mostly a secular society but that does not diminish the journeys your Bible has taken nor the meaning it held for your ancestors.