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.

On Lying

For the last few weeks, I’ve been following two news stories, the Shafia trial and the sinking of the Costa Concordia,  the way teenage girls follow the life of Justin Bieber. They’ve got me thinking about lying.
Now that I’m retired,  lying isn’t something I normally give much thought to. There aren’t as many days filled with a need to dissemble, to flatter, to reassure, to deceive, to manipulate.
I mean, when I was married and my wife said, “Do you think I’ve put on weight?”, I knew better than to say yes. When I was young and idealistic, fresh from Confirmation, certain that God listened to my every word, I’d have said, “Yes.” God may see the little sparrow fall but I think he’s got better things to do than listen to me prevaricate.
That was in the days when I’d been conned into believing that the Ten Commandments said “Thou shall not lie.” They don’t say any such thing. They say you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” It doesn’t say anything about having to tell your boss that yes, that striped jacket makes her look like a zebra. That’s not bearing false witness against a neighbour. The Bible doesn’t say anything about having to commit suicide. As a matter of fact, Christian doctrine says no committing suicide. That’s not in the Ten Commandments, either. It came about because the promise of heaven to a bunch of desperate Roman slaves caused so many of them to commit suicide that the church had to come up with the idea that even though, on the one hand it promised heaven, it was a sin to rush to get there. They made it a sin. Sort of like pushing and shoving in the checkout line at Costco.
If you’d killed three of your daughters, or three of your sisters, and an extra wife or mother, what would you say if the cops asked you if you did it? Yup, I did. I cannot tell a lie. I don’t want to cause the Canadian taxpayer a lot of money investigating and having a trial. There’s nothing worse than lying. A man can’t have any honour if he doesn’t own up to what he’s done. Give me the cuffs.
Or how about Captain Schettino? Be fair, ask yourself, if you’d taken your parent’s car out for the evening, the car that cost 459,000,000 Euros, and totaled it, what would you say when you talked to your father on the cell? It’s okay, Dad, it’s not all that bad. It’ll be fine. It’s got a few dents but I think a little body work will make it better. I think the electrical system is damaged. Yes, Dad, I was distracted. Just remember when you were my age, and if there was this hot Moldovan dancer in the sea beside you, wouldn’t you have wanted to show off a little, wouldn’t you have got distracted a little? Be reasonable. All right, all right, I won’t ask to borrow the boat, ah car, ever again.
I mean, in that first phone call would you have said to the Costa Concordia boss, I’ve just ripped a fifty foot  hole in the hull of your ship, it is sinking, passengers are panicking, we’re tipping over. I don’t know how far over! A little bit. I’m going to get in a lifeboat and move away from the ship so I can calculate the angle. I’ll call you after I get some dry socks.
I would have lied. I would have lied a lot more than the captain. I would have said, you want to talk to Schettino? I’ve never heard of him. I would have got rid of my captain’s clothes, not just my wet socks, and put on some civvies from one of the passenger’s cabins. Even if it was an evening dress.
The problem with Schettino and the Shafia’s isn’t just that their names begin with S but that they were terrible liars. Schettino, at least, had the excuse that everything happened pretty fast. He didn’t have time to prepare. It’s not like he planned to drive the ship onto the rocks and had a couple of weeks to get his story straight.
The first rule of a good liar is to lie as little as possible. Lies trapped in the jello of truth often get swallowed whole. Second, when you tell a lie, tell it in a misleading way. Yes, I’m in a life boat but I’m here because I’m calculating the angle of the tilt you wanted. The other thing to do is tell people what they want to hear. If the Shafias had gone back to Afghanistan and dumped their daughters into the river and said they must have had an accident, no one would have asked any questions. That’s what they’d have wanted to hear. The Shafias got mixed up. They thought they were still in Afghanistan.
One of the biggies is telling everybody the same story. Keep your facts straight. Neither the captain nor the Shaffias kept their facts straight. The captain was on board, then he wasn’t on board, then he was on the ship at the same time that he was on the dock searching for dry socks. The Shaffias were at the locks, then they weren’t at the locks, then they were all at the motel but the manager says they only  booked rooms for six which is four less than ten, the number of women found in the lock. You can just hear Shaffia saying, “But I just knew those rebellious girls would take the car and drown themselves. Can I help it if I’m psychic?”
Good liars are good manipulators. They’ll use anything they can to distract someone questioning them. One favorite trick is to flirt, if you’ve got something to flirt with. Schettino might still manage to escape most of the blame because of his good looks. The Shaffia’s, not so much.
What we’ve had recently are examples of bad lying, not bad as in evil but badly done. To see good lying, not good as in moral but as in successful, we need to observe people who are successful. Politicians, bank presidents, CEOs. The prisons are filled with bad liars. Good liars are rich or at least they’re not in jail.

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.