“Saint Olav turned her eyes toward Christ on the cross – see, Kristin: God’s love.”
~ Sigrid Undset
Yesterday’s Gospel was John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s a miracle of Jesus reported in all four Gospels, so it carries considerable Biblical weight, and in John’s account, it takes place in close textual proximity to the Lord’s Bread of Life discourse – the one in which he explicitly tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The Eucharistic message of the multiplication of loaves is unmistakable: There’s plenty of Jesus to go around. We need but appropriately avail ourselves of his infinite gift of self in Holy Communion to become ever more closely united to him and his mystical Body, the Church (CCC 1396).
But there’s lots more here. Consider the unnamed boy’s contribution of five barley loaves and two fish. Lots of fuss has been generated by widespread revisionist speculation that the boy’s selfless act simply inspired others in the crowd to fork over their own lunches, thereby producing the “miracle” of multiplication. Is it likely, though, that all four Evangelists would’ve chosen to include this astounding event in their Gospels if it’d only been an exercise in crowd-sourcing and generosity?
Instead, it seems clear that John and friends, and the entire early Church, were convinced of the event’s supernatural character, especially given its genesis in that lad’s humble, anonymous, no doubt faltering donation.
And what he donated was paltry enough: five cakes of barley, the grain of the poor, and two fish which were probably beginning to spoil after a long day in the sun. Nonetheless, Jesus accepted those offerings, blessed them and gave thanks, and then fed everybody – with lots of fresh leftovers thrown in for good measure.
Yes, a miraculous transformation from inadequacy to abundance, from paltry to plentitude, but it was a transformation that seemingly depended on somebody coming forward with what he had, no matter how meager. Plus, it’s an image of total surrender, total self-abandonment to divine providence, for the boy didn’t hold back – that is, he wasn’t embarrassed by his imperfect gift, and he didn’t just hand over a single fish and a loaf or two, keeping the rest for himself. He seemed to instinctively know, as all young children seem to know, that if we’re going to sacrifice, there can be no partial measures. And it didn’t matter that his sacrifice appeared insufficient; what mattered was his generous attempt to respond with all that he had.
It’s the template of every Christian’s life story, for it’s only when we approach the throne of grace fully conscious of our fundamental spiritual and moral impoverishment that Jesus can feed us with and transform us into himself. Sometimes we do that with the eager anticipation of a hungry crowd; sometimes we second-guess the Savior and hold back on him, shielding our sin and selfishness, sequestering our weaknesses that we’re not quite ready to reform. No matter. What counts is that we keep coming back – that we keep bringing him our puny loaves shot through with impurities and our slightly rotted fish, and that we keep trusting him to somehow suffuse them with grace and goodness enough to accomplish miracles.
Such was the transformation that appears to have taken place in the life of King St. Olaf of Norway, whose feast would’ve ordinarily been observed on Sunday (29 July). Born to a pagan chieftain around the year 995, Olaf’s adolescent years were marked by his training in the most excessive brand of Viking cruelty and lawlessness. In the course of subsequent political machinations and military maneuvers in England and elsewhere, Olaf received baptism around the age 18, and it took: The young warrior set out to align his dynastic aspirations in Norway with his newly adopted Christian faith.
This he did by first raising an effective campaign to throw off Danish and Swedish suzerainty in his homeland. Then, after declaring himself Norway’s King at age 21, he employed harsh tactics to root out residual pagan practices and establish a nationwide Catholic hegemony. Although largely successful in this effort, his ruthless methods, along with his occasional alliances with pagan leaders against Christian foes, led to a widespread rebellion against his leadership. King Canute the Great of Denmark and England eventually took over leadership of Norway in 1028, and Olaf fled into Russian exile. Intent on reclaiming his throne, Olaf returned to Norway in 1030 with an army comprising his own loyal countrymen and Swedish supporters, but he was struck down at the battle of Stiklestad on July 29.
Now here’s where the loaves and fishes bit comes in, for, as Hans Bekker-Nielsen notes, “soon after his death even his enemies came to recognize that they had killed a saint.” To buttress that sentiment, Grimketel, an English missionary and Olaf partisan, built a chapel on the spot where the King fell. Folks flocked to the site to ask for the martyr’s intercession and apparently their prayers were answered in spades. In time, Olaf’s remains were enshrined, and, as the glimmer of Danish overlordship began to wane, it was only natural that the Norwegian people would turn to the saintly Olaf – his body supposedly incorrupt – as their national patron, seeking his spiritual agency as they sought to restore native rule. This was in fact accomplished when Olaf’s bastard son, Magnus “the Good” was enthroned in 1035.
But, wait, let’s back up: Olaf? A saint? The formerly murderous and marauding Viking whose baptism only seemed to barely mitigate his savage ways? “He was a warrior, often brutal and a man of loose life,” reads the entry for St. Olaf in John Coulson’s Dictionary, “but his reputation for sanctity was immediate on his death, and his cult cannot be entirely explained on political grounds.” Surely it can be granted that the job of king – let alone a medieval king bent on conquering and Christianizing a pagan people – does not lend itself easily to the ordinary strains of sanctifying influence. Yet, somehow, in the midst of imposing his royal will, Olaf drifted ever closer to conformity with his savior. “He was undoubtedly a great man,” Coulson continues, “and it seems that in some ways he must have been a good one.”
This is good news for all of us, because if Olaf could become a saint, anyone can become a saint. We have the idea, the ridiculous, impossible idea, that we first have to embody holiness in order to pursue holiness. Hogwash. Even St. Paul acknowledges as much in today’s second reading from Ephesians. The Apostle lays out the saintly ideal of living “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” – characteristics in short supply where Olaf was concerned.
Yet Paul proffers that ideal as a goal– that is, a target to earnestly shoot for because it’s consistent with “the call you have received.” Becoming a saint is a titanic struggle precisely because we do have so far to go. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor the feint of heart – that is, those who are averse to trying again and again, who will pull their punches and shrink from the fight. “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle,” the Catechism reminds us (CCC 2015), and what is required is what King Olaf evidently managed to pull off: Coming back repeatedly and inexorably, no matter how many failures and catastrophes, to Jesus, laying before him the meanest of loaves and fishes, and expecting conversion.