31 March 2021, The Tablet

Easter and the grace of tears

A Paschal paradox

Easter and the grace of tears

Detail from Erik Valkendorf’s Breviary


At Easter, joy enters the world. But victory is won through defeat; we are freed through a crucified Body. The world is still broken, and still needs saving. In Holy Week we are invited to embrace a uniquely Christian, mystical moment of tearful joy

At a turning point in George Mackay Brown’s historical novel Magnus, the eponymous hero sets sail for Trondheim – medieval Nidaros – to attend the funeral of the Earl of Orkney, Erlend Thorfinnsson. It was the winter of 1098, the year Cîteaux was founded. “East from Scotland”, he travelled, “under a black sail”. “Through high dark narrow streets Magnus,” a stranger in the city, “was led by foreign voices to the great kirk that was there, a God-steading, the high cathedral of Norway.”

The kirk had been built some 20 years earlier by King Olav Kyrre, who knew Erlend well. The two had, in their youth, served side by side in the battle of Stamford Bridge. The future king then spent a season with Erlend and his brother, joint earls. Seeing the cathedral in Birsay inspired his project to raise a shrine to his uncle, St Olav, who had been killed in battle in 1030, then canonised the following year, accomplishing in death what had been his life’s great matter: the unification of the nation under Christ’s banner.

Olav Kyrre built his church too small. In the 1140s, work began on a grander edifice intended to befit the renown of the martyr and that of the see, created a metropolis in 1152 by the Cistercian Pope Eugene III. Its jurisdiction embraced Iceland and Greenland, the Scottish archipelagos, and the Isle of Man.

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