Greinasafn fyrir merki: Hymns of the Passion

Hymns of the Passion – The Suffering King

Of the post-Reformation literature in Iceland two religious books are outstanding and have enjoyed popularity and respect. These are Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Hymns of the Passion and the collection of sermons by Bishop Jón Vídalín, Vídalínspostilla. Jón Helgason maintains that in a public poll in Iceland Hallgrímur Pétursson would get the majority of votes as the greatest interpreter of Icelandic Christianity, whereas Vídalín would earn second place. Nordal speaks of these two as being the main works of the sixteenth and the seventeenth century.[1] Their works were used in homes and churches for centuries after their first publications.[2] In this chapter the main issues of Hymns of the Passion will be discussed and Vídalínspostilla will be looked at in the next chapter.

Hallgrímur Pétursson was born in 1614 in Gröf, in the vicinity of the Episcopal see in Hólar. He died in 1674. In line with liminal features of great religious thinkers, he led an adventurous life, always at the border of devastation.[3] Hallgrímur exemplified, at least according to the tradition, most of the features of a great religious figure. Having stayed at Hólar for some time, Hallgrímur then disappeared and showed up in northern Germany working as an ironsmith. Then his benefactor, bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, put him to studies in Copenhagen. At the close of his studies he was elected to teach and re-Christianize some Icelanders who had been freed from slavery in Northern Africa. He fell in love with one of the women, with whom he begot a child. The whole affair was scandalous because she had been married prior to her kidnapping in a buccaneer raid. Luckily the husband died! The couple moved to Iceland. With further luck they settled down in a coastal parsonage. Later Hallgrímur and his family moved to Saurbær where he wrote Hymns of the Passionand sent them as a gift to the daughter of the bishop of Skálholt. In Saurbær he was struck by leprosy, which caused his death. The career of Hallgrímur is well known in Iceland. People still tell colorful stories about him. According to legend he was the first Icelander to be named the “national poet” by Árni Magnússon. That title is normally reserved for authors of outstanding classics.

Hymns of the Passion was centuries the strongest signpost in Iceland towards Jesus Christ. These hymns were “the favorite “God’s Word” of generation after generation of Icelanders.”[4] In the words of Sigurbjörn Einarsson: “And it is open to question whether any teacher in the history of Christianity ever exercised a stronger or more enduring influence over a whole nation for centuries on than this Icelandic poet-priest has, for the past three hundred years, over his fellow-countrymen.”[5] The author the hymns was humble about his manuscript and called it “an insignificant gift of paper.” But the book has been reprinted more than sixty times since its first publication in 1666; more often than any other Icelandic book. The ideas, aphorisms, wisdom, guidance, and in general the skillfully crafted flow of language found their way into the minds and speech of the common people. Subsequent literature, both in verse and prose, has been colored by this classic. Halldór Laxnes thought: “All Jesus-poetry of the Icelanders becomes unnecessary babbling beside Hymns of the Passion.” He adds that the hymns are probably the peak of a worldwide tide of a specific branch of literature, and climaxing Icelandic literature for the second time. Of the vast amount of religious poetry in Iceland, Hymns of the Passion is exceptional.[6] Most of the rest has lost relevance and withered away in the flow of the centuries.

Hallgrímur Pétursson has been the grandest hymn-writer of the Icelanders. In the 1997 Hymnal of ELCI, the national Church in Iceland, almost ten percent of the hymns are his work. Out of sixty seven  hymns fifty-six are pieces from Hymns of the Passion. The passion-hymns are read every Lent on the National Radio and remain a topic of academic discussion. As a sign of the still powerful message of the hymns Megas, one of Iceland’s major pop stars in late twentieth century, found it worthwhile to compose music to the hymns and give special concerts devoted entirely to Hymns of the Passion. The largest church in Iceland carries Hallgrímur’s name. But probably no indication of the importance of Hymns of the Passion is greater than the fact that for the past three centuries, supposedly the majority of Icelanders have taken the book with them to the grave. The humans of antiquity often took their weapons with them on their last trip. The Icelanders in the recent centuries have been accompanied by the Hymns of the Passion.

The Passion – Jesus Christ

Hymns of the Passion is a book of hymns covering the Passion of Jesus Christ. In these hymns Jesus is depicted as the king of heaven, who wanted to become the messenger of God in a human world full of pain. On the other hand the parable depicts Jesus as a suffering king who takes upon himself the destiny of humans and the world. The two dimensions are launched together – the reality of heaven on the one hand and the problem of the world and human beings on the other. The hymns do teach the love of God, which is disclosed in the process of life “under the cross.” As the messenger of God, Jesus reconciles humans to God. But he is also at the same time a human prototype, reconciling all human traits to human existence. In that Jesus becomes, to the human race, the true mirror of how to live and respond to their problems and yet find a way out. To everyone who is broken down, Jesus becomes the message of hope and challenge. He becomes the daily strength in the struggle for cleansing. The hymns may be interpreted as a guide for daily meditation and conversion in a Lutheran sense.[7] Each hymn is structured as help toward renewal of the Christian.

The struggle of Jesus Christ is the focus of the hymns. The book begins when Jesus departs from the Last Supper. Then the whole process is viewed until Jesus is laid in his grave. Both large scenes and the tiny details, in line with the meditative tradition, are viewed with an inquiring interest. Basic to the perspective of the viewer is the presupposition of Jesus as the heavenly king who comes to the world. But he enters into a world of pain and suffering. The king takes upon himself all of human destiny. The king of heaven in the hymns is first and foremost depicted as a suffering king. By lumping together the two opposite features of heaven and earth, glory and suffering, the tension is furthered and strengthened. In the image of the suffering king, the divine love and reality of the human world are proclaimed. The entire outcome of the world and human destiny are founded on the image of the prototype of the world.

Interpretations of the hymns

Arne Möller’s work, Hallgrímur Péturson’s Passionssalmer, is the first of several books devoted to the work of Hallgrímur Pétursson. Its aim is to disclose the literary background of the hymns. Möller does not focus in any detail on the sense of Hymns of the Passion. The work was a pioneering enterprise upon whose findings most subsequent authors have built. The main problem of this work was its heavy psychological emphasis. Hallgrímur’s experiences were thought to solve most of the riddles of the hymns. Because of this hermeneutical method the richness of the hymns was somewhat misconstrued. Magnús Jónsson has published an elegant collection of Hallgrímur’s hymns and poetry in two large volumes, along with explanations. Magnús Jónsson accepted Möller’s romantic hermeneutical method, with all its personalism. Nordal has criticized Magnús Jónsson for this and pointed out that he tried to reinterpret some of Hallgrímur’s basic themes from a twentieth century, personalistic point of view.[8] Hence he had emphasized fear of death and Hallgrímur’s leprosy in order to evade some other features of his writings and life.[9] 

I agree with Nordal’s criticism that Magnús Jónsson’s method was excessively personalistic and psychological. I will try to transcend this approach by attending to the meaning of texts rather than that of individuals. Nordal’s treatise points out Hallgrímur’s Lutheranism. Nordal renounces the thesis that fear of death was the origin of the hymns. Although Nordal’s attempt was geared toward content, it turned out to be a flight from the issues through a retreat to what he calls an anthropological question, albeit an interesting one: “What happens when faith grasps people.”[10] Hence the focus became somewhat biographical. He finally remains within the circle of the romantic hermeneutic.

The Nobel Laureate-to-be, Halldór Laxnes, fittingly turned the discussion upside down and wrote a striking introduction to Hymns of the Passion. Instead of the biographical approach, Laxnes drew upon Marxist hermeneutic and developed his argument from the Bau-Aufbau theories, arguing that the world of the hymns was a superstructure based upon the underlying socio- economic foundation. With this approach Laxnes managed to strike new and fresh chords. But finally Laxnes’ contempt for seventeenth century religion prevented the interpreter from plunging himself into the depths of the hymns. His approach was too narrow and iconoclastic to bring forth the metaphoric richness and meaning of the hymns.

Perhaps Jakob Jónsson’s collection of articles is closer to the sense of the hymns than his pedecessors were. He discusses several features, like the notion of history, the Christ-type, analogies, ethics, and theology of death. Yet Jónsson’s analysis is also missing a deep appreciation of the metaphorical wealth of the hymns. He manages to evade a simple romantic hermeneutic but does not plunge into the depths of the suffering of the king, which, I think, forms the basis of the hymns. The way he deals with images shows his lack of depth. Confronted with a long list of metaphors, he normally retreats to an interpretation like “this means.”[11] Then Jakob Jónsson exaggerates dualism of spirit and flesh, what is called constitutive dualism later in this work. These issues are in fact the theological tenets of early twentieth century liberalism in Iceland.[12]

Literary background for the hymns

The literature Hallgrímur used may be of many sorts and cannot be easily pinned down. He probably used whatever he could. The Lutheran hymnic tradition, Kirchenlied, was already well rooted in Iceland. He might also have sought some inspiration and poetic techniques from the native epic traditions, the vikivakar and dancing traditions of Iceland. In 1589 a hymnbook had been published and in 1612 bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson’s songbook appeared. Subsequently quite a number of poets began to put the Biblical material into verse in order to spread it among the common people in a form already popular. Jón Þorsteinsson the Martyr rewrote the entire Psalter and Genesis, works of great popularity.[13] Hallgrímur probably wanted to help in this kind of spreading of the Biblical message.[14]

Unusual as it was among the Icelandic clergy of the time, Hallgrímur did not only mold his own theology but published a book of meditations and his theological profile is clearly carved in his Hymns of the Passion. The book that may have had the largest single influence on Hallgrímur is Martin Moller’s: Soliquia de Passione Jesu Christi. It was published in Iceland in 1599 in the translation of bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson. Probably from this book Hallgrímur received the idea concerning the form of his Hymns of the Passion, the interplay of Biblical texts, prayers, baroque interpretation, and conversations with the soul. He further got some ideas concerning imagery, although he turned out to be quite tasteful, leaving out everything ambivalent, banal, and off the wall.[15] Second, he had at hand Johan Gerhard’s Hugvekjur, a compendium on doctrine and ethics. These meditations were published in 1634 in a translation of bishop Þorlákur Skúlason.[16] Sigurður Jónsson put the Hugvekjur to verse. These verses were published the year before Hallgrímur began writing his Hymns of the Passion. That year Jón Magnússon also published his Passionspsalter. There is reason to believe that these two works challenged Hallgrímur to give up his prosody of the Old Testament and launch himself into the heart of the New Testament. Neither of these books was of the artistic quality befitting these cardinal issues of Christianity. The story of Christ’s passion was a common topic of seventeenth century artists and Hallgrímur had plenty of material with which to work. And he turned out to be quite conscientious about his methods, materials and form. In general, Hallgrímur’s contemporaries used allegories rather excessively, whereas in Hymns of the Passion they are not carefully used.[17]

The use of Scripture

Hallgrímur Pétursson structured his hymns in line with the tradition of fourfold medieval approach to Scripture. The preface to the hymns discloses this: “The history of the suffering and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, with her specific articles of instruction, admonishment and consolation.” The historical dimension, sensus historicus, is covered at the outset. Wisdom or instruction, sensus allegoricus, then follows, along with admonitions, sensus tropologicus, and consolation, sensus anagogicus.

All fifty hymns have a historical introduction; some passage from the Gospels is cited. This introduction is normally one-fourth to one-fifth of each hymn. Next is one of the three types of interpretations in the form of a meditation. Then a still deeper penetration follows on the differing details related to the main scene of the hymn. Normally these sections are done with the help of addresses to or conversations with the soul. Then prayers follow, along with wisdom of all sorts and interpretations, all of which aim at strengthening, rebuking and generally nurturing the Christian soul. The reader, in the meditative process, becomes aware of his or her situation as defilement, crisis, and sin. The solution to the riddle of life is to keep close to the suffering king. Finally, Jesus is spoken to and praised at the end of the hymn.


When one looks at the composition of the whole, it seems that Hymns of the Passion has a definite overarching structure. Focusing on the content, the hymns begin in the garden of Gethsemane. The atmosphere is the good and green creation of God. The darkness of the night symbolizes the darkened existence of the human race. Hence, the setting for the incarnation is the natural world created by God, but the destiny for life is suffering and the dark fight unto death. Hallgrímur skillfully shows how alienation occurs in Jesus’ arrest in the garden. Jesus is taken out of God’s green creation, into human quarters symbolizing the absence of God. The different households of the wicked chiefs of humanity, symbolizing the different types of suffering endured, are carefully detailed. Finally Christ is laid to the lifeless stone tomb, far away from the living and fragrant garden. The whole process is a slow, agonizing, and strangling kenosis, emptying. At the outset one senses vast surroundings, large spaces all around and mobility and freedom of the soul. At the end there is this narrow and suffocating hole of lifelessness. The human process also has these characteristics, a process everyone has to endure with Christ. I suggeset a threefold structure of the Hymns of the Passion. The first part concerns Jesus’ pilgrimatge and its counterpart in human life. The second part refers to the trials, the processes and tripulation of Jesus and the human counterpart. In the final and third part Jesus death is depicted and his death is what gives meaning to human death and how one can meaningfully meet that last enemy of life. The following is my distinction of the componment and parts of the hymns.

Hymns 1-9. The Garden and Jesus

1-5      Jesus and the disciples in the Garden

6-9      Jesus and the Jews. The disciples enter the scene now and then and act as signs of reaction.

Hymns 10-29. The Trial

10-17    At the palaces of Annas and Caiphas. Events and their results

18-20    Pilate’s territory

21        Before Herod

22-29   Before Pilate

Hymns 30-50. The Journey to the Cross

30-32   Preparation

33-45   The scene on the cross and the events related to the crucifixion                

46-50   Wider view of the cross from a perspective other than that of Jesus. Spectators. To the grave. Guards

Ricoeur and McFague have pointed out the general structure of a parable: orientation, disorientation, and then reorientation.[18] This is practical in trying to interpret and get some sense of Hymns of the Passion. In the hymns human beings are informed about their situation. The narrative places us in front of a film-screen that depicts our reality. Our reality is disclosed as broken. But suffering is shown not to be the final conclusion of our struggle. In his struggle Jesus Christ revolutionizes history, the human race and individual lives so glory may be achieved. Hence, the divine commitment and participation is proclaimed in the hymns. This revelation leads to prayer and contemplation as the conclusion of the hymns. The structure of individual hymns is repeated in the entire book, preserving the features of parables. Even though the book is a collection of hymns and is normally classified as such, the genre is parabolic according to the structure of the whole.

A striking stylistic feature of the hymns is repetition. The Biblical texts direct the flow of the meditations. Themes and sub-themes are interpreted in multiple ways. In one hymn the theme “word” may be looked at and developed, and in another “hands” may be the theme. The method is rhetorical, and functions also as an aid to meditation.[19] The images are in general in line with common theological usage in the church of the time.[20] 

Each of the hymns in the collection exhibits their own individual style and could be separated from the rest. But nonetheless, the whole collection forms a unified whole. Hallgrímur Pétursson was well aware of how to develop the details with a constant view of the whole. The main emphasis is on the suffering Jesus had to endure. He tells that story and focuses on the wealth of details along the road with an astonishing imaginary power, but always returning again to the main theme with some new insight.[21] The hymns are well thought through and well organized. The format and the main features are easily understood.[22]

The hymns are fundamentally Lutheran and in line with the main elements of the evangelical doctrines. The history depicted reflects the Augustinian-Lutheran theology of history, with its strong emphasis on the battle between good and evil.[23] Nowhere in the hymns is Jesus at peace. Everywhere he is threatened and attacked. In a sense, Jesus is at war. He is a kind of a general in battle, not as a heroic one but more in the antiheroic sense of the general of suffering, obedience, and humility. Nowhere can he find rest and shelter from the struggle. One might say that the story is antiheroic. There are some similarities between the Icelandic Sagas and Hymns of the Passion. The heroes of most of the Sagas were engaged in a battle, and finally had to submit to fate. But in that tragic ending they won the final victory.

Because of its foundation in the passion story, movement or process is an important feature in Hymns of the Passion. No static or a-temporal concepts or issues enter the scene. Jesus is on the road towards the end. Within the everlasting battle between good and evil there is no escape toward some neutral place, no position of stability. All humans are on the road with Christ whether they accept it or not. Because of this mobility, the imagery of the hymns is dramatic, full of tension, and engaging. Even tiny details become important to the reader. The passerby halts, and some new richness of the reader’s being are opened up.

In a truly Lutheran manner, Jesus of the Hymns of the Passion is always ahead and the reader follows. “Hymns of the Passion are via dolorosa, two men walk, Jesus ahead and then I.” [24] On his road, Jesus Christ becomes the essence of humanity. As the forerunner, he takes on the burden of the human race’s punishment. His story is the story of all persons; his story is human history in focus. The aim of the hymns is to alert the reader to this reality. Using the techniques of meditative literature, the author addresses his soul and summons her to follow Jesus. The emphasis is on the “I.” Laxnes maintains that Hallgrímur completely mixes his person with Jesus Christ.[25] There is some truth in that remark, but claims of identity-mysticism in the hymns must be renounced. The human being always remains a partner in the meditative dialogue. Jesus addresses me as a distinct person. Already in the first stanza of the first hymn he sets out this focus: “Arise, my soul, my heart, my mind.” He speaks to the inner being. Yet the approach is not subjective. With this emphasis on the inner self, the soul, the author manages to refer to everyone. The issue of the Son of God who revolutionizes everything is of such overarching importance that it concerns everybody (1:10, 3:10, 25, 40:16).[26] The depths of being are revealed to the self in public. The personal style of the hymns is such that they naturally become everyone’s. Möller has discussed extensively this striking personal feature. He maintains that this is a far cry from the ecclesiastical “we”. He points out the development of the Augustinian-Bernhardian medieval mysticism. According to Althaus, to whom Möller refers, more and more subjective features entered the hymns of the Lutherans in the form of personal meditation, individual speech, introversion and feeling. This, according to Möller, was the character of the books, to which Hallgrímur had access. This analysis may be partly true. But the main feature of the hymns is the close discipleship. The soul follows Jesus wherever he goes and whatever he experiences. Because Jesus is depicted as the essence of humanity, the meaning of what it is to be human, the subjective interpretation is inadequate. The emphasis on the soul, then, is only a tool of pastoral attempt to rouse participation.

Second, the soul is talked about in Hymns of the Passion in terms of interrelationship. The soul is interrelated to others and to God as well. A soul cut of from other selves and from God is an absurdity. The soul may try to escape the ties to others and God but never succeeds without a fundamental disaster.[27] Each of the hymns is structured to challenge the reader and to lure him or her toward participation in the passion of Christ. The challenge entails both faith and morality. Humans are called to responsible action, rather than a spiritualized response. Generally there is a very strong social awareness in the hymns and critique of injustice. In line with the Lutheran tradition the law is proclaimed in its three dimensions.

One of the stylistic features of the hymns is their emphasis on brevity of time. Taken as a whole the entire book, all the fifty hymns, span only one solar day in Christ’s life. The vast scenery and immense number of details lumped into such brevity of time give the reader a sensation of immediacy, of all life as only a day. Tension is created between the long suffering of Christ and the short life of each individual.

God and interpretative keys

With regard to Hymns of the Passion I think the metaphor of the suffering king functions as the dominant metaphor ruling the metaphorical structure and thought. First the dominant notion or image of God in the hymns will be discussed, showing how that image is not strongly stated in the hymns. Indeed the Christ-model is called for, which functions to interpret the First Person of the Trinity but also serves to illuminate human reality and organize all metaphors of human self-understanding. The overarching stress in the dominant model concerns features of limit. These aspects will be dealt with in the proper order. The attempt will be made to show that this metaphorical cluster accentuates in turn issues of limit for human beings and the world.

In Hymns of the Passion the first person of the Trinity is depicted primarily with the help of the metaphorical model of fatherhood. God is also depicted as creator, judge, savior, and spirit but upon closer scrutiny one notices that only a few features of God are disclosed apart from reference to Jesus Christ. Hallgrímur states that reason will never reach the depths of God’s mysteries (21:1). One may sense some reticence regarding the first person of the divine Trinity. It might seem that a tension is created between the distant Father and the strikingly present Son. But upon closer scrutiny one sees that Hallgrímur’s theology is a traditional, Trinitarian theology. Jesus is depicted as God, even though reason may not be able to understand the depths of God fully. In 41:9 it is clear that it is God the Father who will never leave “me” alone.

A few contours of the image of God are drawn. First of all God is depicted as the Father of Jesus Christ. In a good relationship with the Son, the human race acquires the right to sonship. Without any further definitions, Hallgrímur refers to the creative God, who is powerful and sets limits in the world. In a Lutheran sense, God’s relationship to the world is twofold. As a lover, God cares and aims at the world’s welfare (44:4, 44:6, 3, 20). On the other hand, God can be angry, strongly reacting to a world departing from the correct course (26:2, 12:22ff). Only the shadow of Christ’s cross will cover human wrongdoing and shelter human beings from the wrath of God (37:13). Through Christ’s power the Christian may approach God and receive the needed guidance (44:10).

One striking feature of the hymns is relativity, how God is depicted as a related God. The few dimensions of God the Father that are disclosed are always cast in terms of relationship. No God can be experienced or construed apart from that bond. God acts, reacts and shows emotion, unlike Jesus Christ who is totally obedient and undergoes suffering without murmuring or resistance. Laxnes has written extensively, if not somewhat heatedly, on the notion of God in the hymns. He maintains that the image is of an angry and merciless God, who relentlessly uses the strongest means for bitter ends. Laxnes concludes that this theology turned out to be the ruling classes’ tool of torture for the purpose of afflicting the rest of the nation. The Devil and God, he maintains, are not opposite poles, but rather act together as judge and butcher.[28] This entire aspect of Laxnes’ interpretation misses the mark. Admittedly theological constructions have been and will be used in the interest of some ideology foreign to Christian love. But Laxnes’ approach cannot be substantiated with reference to Hymns of the Passion. Hallgrímur is, no more of a Manichean dualist than Luther. He teaches a dramatic, ethical dualism. Laxnes misses entirely the motivation for fighting evil in the world. Hallgrímur maintains that only God has any real power, and God’s power may be bestowed upon human beings precisely for the purpose of fighting evil, on an individual as well as social level. Finally in a confessional, Biblical sense, Hallgrímur admits that God both gives and takes, but always in the service of love. To that power of love, Hallgrímur always yields.

Jesus Christ – suffering

In Hymns of the Passion Jesus Christ is depicted neither as a military general who comes from above nor as a mystic savior from beyond. He is rather portrayed, in line with kenotic Christology, as submitting to the misery of human beings. He is a suffering king. The Son of God gives up the glory and power of his divinity. Signs of majesty, like the transcendental wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, are kept to minimum in the hymns. This is not to deny the divinity of Christ. Hallgrímur is well aware of Christ’s supernatural knowledge, (1:24, 42:3). Hallgrímur’s emphasis on the passion may indeed direct what issues receive consideration, hence the lack of elaboration on the majesty of the Son.

Rather than giving insight into static conceptions, the hymns aim at showing the affective drama of the passion. Jesus Christ is the person of events. He is on the road, a being involved in struggles and reacting to events. His reaction primarily concerns the obedience involved in submitting to suffering. That role, the one of the suffering royal servant is the main model of Hymns of the Passion, organizing the other models. In line with Luther the hymns accept that the human life is characterized also by suffering, is also a via dolorosa. God becoming human cannot be grasped with the intellect, but rather must be understood through participation in the struggle Christ leads. The Christianity that evolves from this approach is the Christianity of Lent and Easter rather than the Christianity of Christmas. The concern of the resulting theology is not so much theoretical inquiry as the practical labor of imitating Christ. The Christ image both poses a quest to Jesus’ fellow humans and answers that quest. He becomes the mirror in which the human may recognize his or her being, both possibilities and realities. The combination of suffering and the deity (dialectical and tensive) encompasses all dimensions of humanity, but also discloses the relation of God to the world.

Hallgrímur uses several titles for Jesus, all of which remain within the framework of traditional theology. Quite often Jesus is mentioned as the Son of God or Son of the Father (14:12, 15:4, 25, 35:4). Jesus is spoken of as the most beautiful image of the Father (45:3). He is also a Creator (14:5), only begotten (25:14), God and human (36:8) and fountain of all mercy (34:4). Jesus is gifted with foreknowledge (1:24, 5:4). He is the word of the Father, who establishes everything with his power (2:14). All powers have their origin in Jesus (19:12). He is the Lord of glory, who elects and exercises all Lordship (27). But first and foremost Jesus Christ is depicted as a king. The twenty-seventh hymn remains the most powerful example of the royalty of Jesus. A tension is set up between the notion of kingship held by Pilate and the Jews on the one hand and the true king of the cross. With great skill Hallgrímur satirizes the former concept. In a meditation on the crucified king Hallgrímur bows to the king of heaven:

Yes, Jesus you are king, most clear

The King of glory through the years

The King of angels, mankind’s King,

The King of all created things.

(27:9 Translation Gracia Grindal 2019)

Yet the king was bound before Pilate, suffered at the hands of humans. But Jesus, not Pilate, finally becomes the judge, (27:11).

Your church elects you, hear it sing

For you, and only you are King

Now may your Lordship guide her ways

To heaven’s light and shining peace.  Amen.

(27:15 Translation Gracia Grindal 2019)

Throughout the entire hymn human royalty is kept in tension with the heavenly kingship. The constant comparison discloses the real meaning of kingship and the status of human dignity over against Jesus’ dignity. Finally, God and humans are united when truth is realized in a submission to the suffering king.

Normally God the Father is not spoken of as the king; that title is reserved for Jesus. The kingship of Jesus has the three dimensions of power, glory, and grace. First of all, Jesus is king by virtue of his divinity, his power (27:9). But that emphasis does not receive priority within the hymns. Jesus Christ is a king also because of what he accomplishes in the world, i.e., glory. This kingship acquired in the world is what Hallgrímur stresses. The royalty of Jesus is partly a matter of his worthiness in this world. He is elected as a king due to his competence. This emphasis is clear from 27:15, for example. The title of king is not an ontological judgment or dogmatic statement, but rather springs forth as a response of Christ’s work, as a doxological utterance. This confessional approach would not suggest that Hallgrímur rejected more doctrinal elaboration of the glory of Christ. The emphasis is merely on the need for human beings to exalt Jesus Christ in their lives. Only in that sense can Jesus be glorious to them. The emphasis is the Lutheran “for me, ”pro me.” The aim of the hymns is fideistic and practical, to arouse human beings to follow Jesus Christ. The images and techniques are always dramatic and dialectical rather than speculative. Finally, Jesus is the king of grace, i.e., the church (5:8, 19:13- 14, 27:13-15).

Tension characterizes all the hymns and hence this feature of kingship as well. Jesus Christ is the king of the cosmos. But, on the other hand, he takes upon himself all the burdens of the world and finally reaches the end. The conflict between good and evil flares up. The hymns imply that Jesus may break down or give up. Luckily for humans, he does not, and hence he deserves the honorary title of king. The Jesus who fights and battles is the king for Hallgrímur and for the entire human race. Finally praise breaks loose. The king who suffers is elevated through the resurrection, becoming the king of angels, humans, of glory for eternity, king of all might and sovereignty (27:9). The Danish Monarchy was established when the hymns were in the making and may have colored some of the metaphorical language. That context enhances the proclamation of the heavenly Jesus over against worldly kings.

Jesus for “me”

Jesus himself decided to suffer for humanity, suffer “for me” (1, 20:4). The whole process of suffering is rooted in Jesus’ own decision. But on the other hand Jesus does not choose the actual occasions of the suffering. Because the passion-story’s drama and its control of themes, the nature of Christ’s suffering is not described in any detail in the hymns. Jesus simply suffers and is struck with all kinds of pain. The Biblical image of the suffering lamb is used (6:16). Jesus is the humble and obedient son, who accepts his yoke without complaint. The sense of something attacking from the outside is strongly depicted in the hymns. Attacks of all sorts are described. Something stalks Jesus Christ, chases him, suddenly comes close and strikes him. The result is a humiliated Jesus. He is laid on the ground, i.e., not allowed the dignity of standing; he is bound, imprisoned, and flagellated (9:10, 2, 3, 6, 9, 23, 38). In a sense the punishment of humanity is the cause of this lowly position. First and foremost, he is attacked from within the human world. He is scoffed and suffers verbal and physical attacks. In addition, nature turns against him (3). His body breaks down, sweats, bleeds, and trembles (3). The power of evil creeps around and hovers above. The interpretation of Christ in the hymns is structured always from the perspective of attack. Jesus must stand against armies of enemies. He must fight.[29] His approach is the steady obedience of the Son and messenger of God (36:6, 18:9, 24:6, 43:10). Obedience undergirds all of his reactions. Jesus does not escape, does not answer the verbal attacks (39:9, 27:10). He reacts with grace and generosity (18:9). Nothing alters his steadiness in his pilgrimage.

What Jesus suffers is what Adam, the whole human race, deserves. Jesus collects all the dimensions of the world into his struggle. All suffering is incorporated into his being-in-the-process, his via dolorosa. By that suffering, guilt and wrath are abolished (25:9). Not only humans benefit but also nature (3:10). In the struggle against evil, the cruelty of all times and places is launched against him. This is probably clearest in hymn thirty-three, the hymn of the crucifixion. It is exceedingly well written. Not only does the author analyze the general, but also he interprets it with an emphasis on that which benefits the individual. In Christ’s suffering a cosmic miracle happens which affects all human beings. The person who follows Christ will be incorporated into that miracle. Naturally the soteriological images and metaphors of the hymns are drawn from the classical tradition. Jesus Christ is the payment or ransom for “our” trespasses (3:13), buys a field of mercy with his drops of blood (17:15), and frees “us” from exile (17:23). He is the wind that blows away the clouds (5:5) and that olive tree that brings forth salvation when pressed (2:1). Jesus Christ alone presses the grapes of wrath for all humans. Judgment strikes in one focus that becomes the turn of the ages of the human race.

The model of the limited human being

If the dominant metaphor of the hymns is the suffering king, then a clear and distinct delineation of the nature of the human being is bound to be revealed by that model, and so it is. Jesus becomes the prototype of humanity. His process is an interpretation of the purpose and position of human beings in the world. Jesus is simultaneously described as message about God as well as a message to human beings, based in his human history, about who we are. In some sense one may conclude that human being is Jesus Christ. But humanity is also fallen, Adamic, which is the main reason for the suffering of both Jesus Christ and humans. Hallgrímur accepts a classical theology of creation, fall, and redemption. He furthermore speaks of the historical Adam and the fall and the resulting interpretation of the human being as Adam. He then interprets Jesus as the new Adam, God emptying God-self and submitting to human nature and the accompanying suffering.

As already stated, the hymns are structured from the perspective of the journey of Jesus and the “I.” The follower learns to see both the nature of the self and of his or her call for life in a fresh way. Jesus becomes the mirror in which everyone can see oneself in a double way, both the defilement and also cleanliness (9:3). Jesus drinks the whole cup of suffering, whereas I manage only the half. He is God, whereas I am a fallen Adam. When this contrast is realized, a change occurs in the life of the follower, who begins to sense his or her limitation. Limited human being constantly attempts to break loose, but in a wrong way. Therefore it tumbles down, is laid low, and imprisoned in a ditch or net or something else, which prevents the mobility and freedom of life. The hymns describe the result of abused freedom with images of something that holds one tightly and limits more and more strongly the more one tries to get loose. Ingrained in the tragic suffering of humanity is a lack of acceptance of the human position in life. The main sin is the attempt to break away from one’s given position. The result of that fleeing is a fall or tumbling down into an imprisonment. The only hope of salvation is a stubborn clinging to the one who has come to save. He will manage to get through the land of falling toward a secure shelter with a real foundation.

Already in the first hymn, the confession is brought forth “A man of need, thou art my soul” (1:11).[30] This introduction to the human situation is descriptive as to Hallgrímur’s notion of humanity. All humans are needy beings, insufficient by themselves and unfulfilled. First of all the human being is limited by being situated, limited in the position of a created and living being in the world. The body is fragile and decays (17:10). A wealth of metaphors is used in the hymns to depict the limitations of the body. Humans are glass vessels for preserving a treasure (1:27). The vessel may break and should be treated gently. The metaphors of clay and pottery are often used (17:5). Clay easily breaks and is also easily deformed. Human being is also a grain of wheat that is sowed in the ground. It grows, ripens, and gives fruit and then decays and is laid low at the end (17:27). Humans are born naked into the world, which signals their limited and threatened life (36).

The powers of the mind are limited. Reason is limited and should not be trusted. Knowledge is broken and often leads humans astray (7:3, 11:3, 21). As a result, honesty disappears and humans become broken cane and unstable flesh (11:2, 11:8). Because of one’s limitation, one should seek advice and guidance from neighbors and friends. But the validity of their gifts is not certain. However important the cooperation and togetherness of human society is, it never guarantees honesty and welfare. “Of all they pledged for friendship’s sake, /All trust in them reposing” (9:2). Finally, one is always alone in spite of the society of human beings (7:12). The exception would be the truly Christian community. The human being is marked by death. The most striking images are the ones taken from the flora. The message of the graveyards that circle around the Icelandic churches is echoed in the Gethsemane of Hymns of the Passion. The plant grows and opens her being in the summer before suddenly dying and falling prey to the grasp of winter. Everyone is marked by death from the first day of life.

Human beings are not just static and situated, but are also living beings in process. They constantly struggle and react to things in space and in the inner realm of emotions. First and foremost, the descriptions in the hymns of these dynamic human aspects are rooted in the awareness of the battle between good and evil, thematized in the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition. All good gifts of body and soul may be used for evil in wrong choices. Reactions may be wrong on all levels, in thoughts and acts, in private and public life and against nature. Common to all of them is unfaithfulness to God, which is manifested in rejection of the limits God has set.

Humans wrongly restructure the world and by that try to evade what God has done. They misplace power and go to far (9). All attempts to transcend limits will fail (11). An example of this situation is curiosity. When the limits of one’s frame of knowledge and wisdom are transgressed, a breach occurs. Because of this misguided attempt, the knowledge acquired is bound to be used wrongly. The example of that would be Herod (21). One’s relation to things and humans, and one’s actions in life should be placed within the proper limits (1:9). There are many variations of this theme in Hymns of the Passion. One should, for example, not attempt to inquire into transcendental issues, which humans cannot use in a proper way. Because of the limitation of human knowledge and power, acquired skills in dealing with mysterious beings and the world beyond will utterly fail and finally do harm (14:11; the Icelandic term is fjölkyngi, multi-knowing. In greed one trespasses the set limit by trying to harbor what others rightly own. Language may be misused in a similar way, by speaking wrongly, backbiting, and multi-talking, i.e., too much talk with too little content or with overflowing content that harms others. All of this talk breaks the limits of the tongue, which causes harm instead of accomplishing the only aim of speech, to strengthen life and human community. Grumbling is similarly trespassing because it does not address and accept what is given with dignity and true humility (2:7). Humans tend to overestimate their own worth, to take seats that are not truly theirs and in general to show pride (11, 13:3, 18:10). They constantly search false enlightenment and glamour (21). They seek worthless praise, do not control their temper, seek wealth and wrong governance (28:6, 34:4, 36, 22:8).

On several occasions human beings do not go far enough. The hymns heavily emphasize that in morality nothing should be hidden from public view. Concealing is disgusting according to the hymns. Officials and people in power stifle justice by concealing criminals and turn truth and also society upside down (28:7). Not paying attention and doing little or nothing to help the poor, needy, and suffering is another example of breaking the limits by not going far enough (14:14).

Evil in Hymns of the Passion is therefore best approached from the perspective of limitation. Human beings either go to far or not far enough. On both sides they will tumble down as compared to an upright dignity kept within borders. The persons in the hymns become types representing certain negative features. Pilate is an example of one who tries to be sly in his official service. Herod represents curiosity. Peter is emotionally unstable and lacks firmness of character. Judas falls prey to concealment.

Beyond the attributes of humanity, the cosmic order is limited as well. Time plays an important role in the Hymns of the Passion and is depicted as limited (15). No metaphysical speculation is seen in the hymns. Time is referred to only in connection with the human world. Human beings should be alert because of the limitation time places upon them, because of the numbered fractions of time and because of transience of time (8:17). The moment of every “now” is given only for good and purposeful creation. The future is not secured. In the hymns this warning is normally given with reference to power. Officials should be especially careful about their positions. Their power is limited and is maintained only for a while. Indeed it is always situated at a border (8:18). Related to this is the use of symbols of night and darkness to remind one on the uncertainty of all that is (4:18-19, 5:2). The human beings are depicted as pilgrims in time, constantly threatened in dealing with limiting actions, qualities, and occasions.

Along with Hymns of the Passion Hallgrímur originally sent the hymn “On death’s uncertain hour” to the beaten and humiliated Ragnheiður, the daughter of the bishop of Skálholt. Ragnheiður was dying, and having read the hymn, she wanted it to be sung at her funeral. After 1800 the hymn has been sung at most funerals in Iceland. The hymn is exceedingly powerful in its careful yet striking use of symbolism. The human life is depicted in the metaphor of the plant of the field, which grows up, carries fruit, and then is cut by the skillful mower. No distinction is made between roses and weeds. The sharp scythe of death is on its way. The speed of the hymn is astonishing and awakens an awareness of immediate threat. The transience of the world is emphasized and its limitation is exposed.[31] The metaphorical clustering of nature and humanity has been an important strand in Icelandic culture. Even the national anthem of the Icelanders is based upon the same constellation, with a frame of thought similar to the ninetieth hymn of the Psalter: “eitt eilífðar smáblóm með titrandi tár, sem tilbiður Guð sinn og deyr.”

Human stumbling, falling and afflictions

The dominant metaphor in the hymns, the suffering Christ, directs the way the threat to humans, and the stumbling and falling of the human beings are depicted. The image drawn in the hymns is of a leaning being, standing at the border or at the abyss. Enemies approach and try to fool this being in all possible ways (34:8). The world is a deformed mistress who lays her snares (11:10).

The threat from the human world is the overarching one in the hymns. A decadent political power acting deviously is Hallgrímur’s favorite example (18). The halls of palaces become symbols for the demonic network of security formed by false powers. In these halls, groups of people scream obscenities against God and the true disciples (10-29). The types of individuals in power are especially likely to practice evil by misusing their position. Their righteousness is usually only on the surface (26, 30).

Because of the instability of the human position the hymns stress the importance of maintaining one’s place.[32] When leaning toward some non-divine power the human posture dissolves and the stumble and the fall is inevitable. The descriptions of Jesus’ physical features and posture, especially at the crucifixion symbolize the posture of the human being (33, See also 11, 12). In seventeenth century poetry the emphasis on impending threats and attacks is common. As in most religious traditions the physical dimensions of height and lowliness have religious overtones. What is high and upright is godly whereas lowliness symbolizes the absence of the divinity. What drags down and what is heavy is sin (2:14, 9:10, 11:9). Humans toss about in their worldly revelry. In the lowly position the only valid escape is under Christ’s cloak.

In the fallen situation all kinds of afflictions strike the human being. He or she will experience the abyss of nothingness, which becomes bondage by itself. The descriptions are many. The human is on enemy ground (9:5), escaping (9:3), in prison (29), and in trouble (12:11). The human is like the snared bird, fighting and trying to get loose. The more one fights, the tighter the snare holds (12). The soul similarly experiences darkness (41:17), despair, loads of wrongdoings and numbness (6), fiery fear (3:11), and achingly cold bath of sweat (3:11), and worry (17). The conscience beats and fights like the snared bird (12). The heart of the human is defiled (4:8), imprisoned in pain, guilt, sorrow, and fear (23). All these Hallgrímur relates to the function of the Law in the individual life. The surrounding as well as the inner being becomes the accusing Law, which strikes, strangles, suffocates, and brings the sinful soul toward repentance. Following upon the function of the Law, Christ returns to remake the world, lift up, heal the wounds, and bring peace and glory (12).

Within the limit – secured life

The Christian life, according to Hymns of the Passion, has two dimensions. One is primarily what is called faith. The other is an upright morality. Both are rooted in the two dimensions already described, the suffering king and the resulting image of limited humans.  The suffering but victorious king is able to transmit to his disciples a part in his victory. The Christian has to renew his relationship daily and keep his or her position under the shadow of the saving accomplishments of Christ. Through the vigilance the attacks of evil may be broken both within and without. The Christian thus accepts his or her limits, which may not be transcended. No ceasefire exists between the two opponents, evil and the goodness. The Christian has to follow Jesus constantly while alive. The Christian life may be difficult but in a totally different sense from faithless life. In faith the Christian is empowered with hope and consolation.

The moral dimension in the hymns is the counterpart to faith. Ethics is formed in the human, both by the Christ-image and also by the acceptance of limits. Human beings must for the sake of all remain within their limits and then with upright certainty go their way without falling off the road on either side. When threats appear and temptations lure, the Christian must maintain his or her Christ-like stamina. Scorn and scolding shall be met with silence (13:2), patience shall be shown and obedience (2:9). Even love should be practiced without excess (1:19). Suffering should be met with endurance, love should be returned for evil (22:2). The officials shall be answered with reason but not with fear or wrong resignation (18:5). Temper should be moderated (34:4). Everything should be done without concealments (2:18, 9:13, 14:11).

The ethics of the hymns is the ancient ethics of sofrosyne, i.e., of moderation. One has to know one’s place and not attempt any false trespassing. Jesus as the prototype has given the true example of the ethical endeavor. Finally prayer, word, and sacrament, along with the community, will strengthen the Christian in the battle. In relation to God, the Christian should live in grateful response.

[1] See Jón Helgason, “Jón Vídalín – In Memoriam Ducentenariam 1666-1720-1920.” in Prestafélagsritið, 2 (1920), 1. See also Balslev, Balslevs Biblíusögur handa Unglingum (Reykjavík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, 15th. ed., 1917), 183. See also Matthías Jochumsson, Bréf Matthíasar Jochumssonar (Akureyri: Bókadeild Menningarsjóðs, 1922), 53. See Sigurdur Nordal, Hallgrímur Pétursson og Passíusálmarnir (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1970), 60.

[2] I will, in line with Icelandic naming tradition, refer to Hallgrímur’s Christian name rather than his father’s name. Six major works have been devoted to Hallgrímur: Arne Möller, Hallgrímur Péturssons Passionssalmer: En Studie over Islandsk Salmedigtning fra det 16. og 17. Århundrede(Köbenhavn, Kristiania, London, Berlin: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 1922); Magnús Jónsson, Hallgrímur Pétursson: I-II  (Reykjavík: Leiftur, H.F., 1945, 1947); Sigurður Nordal, Hallgrímur Pétursson og Passíusálmarnir, Halldór Laxnes, “Inngangur að Passíusálmum,” in Vettvangur Dagsins (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, H.F., 1942); Jakob Jónsson, Um Hallgrímssálma og höfund þeirra (Reykjavík: Grund, 1972) and Margrét Eggertsdóttir, Barokkmeistarinn: List og lærdómur í verkum Hallgríms Péturssonar (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 2005). This is a doctoral dissertation and convincingly demonstrates the impact of baroque sentiments, ideas and poetry. Barokkmeistarinn is far the best scholarly study of Hallgrímur Pétursson to date. The edition of Hymns of the Passion I used for this project is Hallgrímur Pétursson, 50 Passíusálmar (Reykjavík: Leiftur, 1971).

[3] On marginal symbols and great religious leaders, André Drogers, “Symbols of Marginality in the Biographies of Religious and Secular Innovators,” Noumen, Vol. XXVII, Fasc. 1., 105-121.

[4] Stefán Einarsson, A History of Icelandic Literature (New York: John Hopkins Press, 1957), 199. Magnús Helgason, ibid., 15.

[5] Sigurbjörn Einarsson, “Introduction” in Hallgrímur Pétursson, Hymns of the Passion: Meditations on the passion of Christ, trans. Arthur Charles Gook (Reykjavík: Hallgrímskirkja, 1966), xii.

[6] See Laxnes, “Inngangur að Passíusálmum,” Vettvangur Dagsins (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1942), 69, 71.

[7] Arne Möller, Hallgrímur Pétussons Passionssalmer, 200.

[8] See Nordal, ibid., 22-36.

[9] See Nordal, ibid., 22-36.

[10] Nordal, ibid., 137.

[11] See Jónsson, Um Hallgrímssálma, 52ff.

[12] A short and appreciative introduction to the hymns is Sigurbjörn Einarsson, “Introduction” in Hallgrímur Pétursson, Hymns of the Passion: Meditations on the Passion of Christ, trans. Arthur Charles Gook (Reykjavík: Hallgrímskirkja, 1966). On the literary and historical background of the hymns, see Helgi Skúli Kjartansson, Hallgrímur Pétursson  (Reykjavík: Ísafold, 1974).

[13] See Kjartansson, ibid., 95ff.

[14] For further literary background, see Eggertsdóttir, Barokkmeistarinn: List og lærdómur í verkum Hallgríms Péturssonar (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 2005).

[15] See Kjartansson, ibid., 11ff.

[16] On the main tenets of this book, see Möller, ibid., 110.

[17] On the methods, see Möller, ibid., 841 and Jakob Jónsson, ibid., 52ff.

[18] Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Pluralism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 46.

[19] Nordal, Hallgrímur Pétursson, 137.

[20] Jakob Jónsson, ibid., 19.

[21] Nordal, ibid., 88-89. Nordal talks of a musical structure of the book. See also Laxnes, “Inngangur að Passíusálmum,” 65.

[22] Laxnes compares Hallgrímur to Klopstock and points out the accessibility of the hymns to the common person. Laxnes, ibid., 63. Jakob Jónsson points out the symmetric web of the hymns, how the themes are reflected here and there in the larger whole. J. Jónsson, ibid., 76.

[23] Jakob Jónsson, ibid., 116ff.

[24] Jakob Jónsson, ibid., 46.

[25] See Laxnes, ibid., 66.

[26] Specific references to Hymns of the Passion will be within the text. Here, for example (1:10) denotes a reference to the tenth stanza of the first hymn. On some occasions, however, reference is made not to stanzas but rather to the entire hymn.

[27] See Möller, ibid., 185.

[28] Laxnes, ibid., 10-23.

[29] In the poem, Endurminning Krists Pínu, this approaching threat and attack is also quite visible: “Blessaður sveitist í blóði sín/ barðist við dauðann stranga,/ harmkvæli öll og alls kyns pín/ yfir hans sálu ganga:/ falskoss, fjötur og bönd,/ færður í Júða hönd,/ högg, slög, og hráka leið,/ hæðni, álygð og neyð/ og dómsályktan ranga”. Hallgrímskver (Reykjavík: Jens Árnason, 14.ed., 1952), 127.

[30] The Gook translation misses the loftiness of the original: “Thou as a beggar must, my soul,/ Receive from God thy daily dole.” 

[31] See Magnús Jónsson, ibid., I, 271ff. See also the Hymnal of ELCI, the National Church of Iceland, used in 2009, no. 273.

[32] Other poems by Hallgrímur Pétursson, outside Hymns of the Passion, exemplify the same features: “Merkjum nú, kærustu Kristí börn/ þá kreppu sem að oss spennir./ Ekki höfum vér afl né vörn/ að útrýma frá oss henni,/ Guð náði vort fár og vanda./ Liggur meðal leóna/ vor líkaminn og önd,/ luktur sem jómfrú í trölla hönd/ og reisir ei við rönd,/ því megn er ei móti að standa.” This stanza from a poem in Dagleg Andvarpan speaks of a multitude of threats and the precarious situation of the human being.

A chapter from Sigurdur Arni Thordarson: Limits and Life: Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland. On the publication see this link. The artwork is from Leifur Breiðfjörð’s fantastic stained glass window above the entrance of Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavík, the church dedicated to the memory of Hallgrímur Pétursson and his literary masterpiece, Hymns of the Passion. Gracia Grindal has made a fine new translation of the Hymns of the Passion. Information concerning the translation on this link. The shop of Hallgrimskirkja will be able to send a copy. Send an email to

Icelandic culture and religion – tradition applied


Náttúra, kraftur og fólkIn the latest issue of the New Yorker, on November 9, 2015, there is an interesting article on rescue teams in Iceland. Actually the system is unique in the world. Iceland has no army, and because police and the coast guard are underfunded and spread thin, Icelanders have developed a non-governmental task force for helping people in distress due to volcanic eruptions, avalanches, earthquakes, ocean gales, sandstorms, glacier bursts, and awful blizzards in both summer and winter. The non-governmental volunteer movement has almost ten thousand members in all, with four thousand of them on “callout-duty.” Every town or community has a team. It is no scout group of youngsters but rather well trained, well equipped, self-funded and self-organizing groups of people on standby: 3% of the nation are members – volunteers!

Forces of nature have not only had an impact on people, they have also given birth to a culture with a view of the world and strategies for ways to live — and also how to die. The reporter from the New Yorker did a fine job describing the truck-driving guardian angels but didn’t understand or explain the underlying reasons. I think there are definite cultural and historical reasons for the formation of these teams. A look at the history of Icelandic culture has convinced me that the reasons are cultural, and more specifically religious-ethical. The type of Christianity practiced and preached in the country helped mold a society of togetherness and care for neighbors in need.

The rescue teams have been and are groups that confront the powers of nature. They have their litanies, their scriptures and services. Even though they have no religious affiliation, and the religious views of the members are highly diverse, they function in a religious style and on the foundation of a religious culture. In rescuing people, they perform the task of the Good Samaritan. In this they continue a strong ethical tradition in Iceland. Icelanders have in all ages lived out the theology of God caring for human beings, sensing that there is grace in nature – and that there is also a loving, divine presence in the midst of crises.

Nature and the struggle

First, a few words about the harsh nature of the country and the art and strategies of survival in Iceland. A comparison between Norway and Iceland is enlightening, illustrating how grim the struggle was in Iceland over the centuries. By the end of the 11th century, the Norwegian population came to roughly 250 thousand people. At the same time, some 70 thousand Icelanders lived on this island. The ratio was “more than 1 Icelander to 4 Norwegians.” Both nations had their ups and downs over the next 600 years. Shortly after 1800 the Norwegian population was up to 883 thousand, whereas Icelanders were down to 47 thousand. What happened? Did some Icelanders leave, looking for a milder climate, emigrating to the Canary Islands, Brazil or North America? No, they were down from 70 thousand to 47 thousand due to catastrophes in nature. By 1800 the ratio was 1 Icelander to 17 Norwegians. This simple comparison sheds some light on the difficulties of survival. What strategies for survival were formed on this Mission Impossible. How did this struggle shape or mold religion?

Religious classics and literature

I would like to draw attention to two classics in the Icelandic tradition and point out their basic dimensions for liturgical inspiration and application. These are Hymns of the Passion and Vídalínspostilla.

Icelanders have been a people of letters. Both ordinary and educated people put events and emotions into words and text. Poverty did not prevent them from writing. Both women and men shaped their feelings, both joy and grief, into poetry which was memorized, and some of it was written down. Some Icelandic pastors were productive and took pride in publishing their theology, sermons and meditations. This religious literature was not tied to the church; it was put to use in households all over the country. It was almost “the social media” of those times.

Collections of sermons were not only meant for “simple” pastors but also for reading in the homes of those who did not manage to attend church on Sundays. The collection of sermons by Bishop Jón Vídalín, Vídalínspostilla, published in the early part of the 18th century, was exceptionally important and had a lasting impact on discourse about issues of faith and society, the meaning of human life and of nature, and how to behave and act. Hymns of the Passion, first published in late 17th century, were learned by heart by many people from 1700 and well into the 20th century.

An astonishing amount of religious literature was printed in Iceland in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a joke in Iceland that the number of religious books published in the country was enough to pave the road all the way to the pope in Rome, and publishing religious books was the most lucrative part of Icelandic publishers’ trade. They may have made money on religion in the past, but that has now come to a complete stop. Very few books of sermons, meditations or religious poetry have been published in Iceland for decades.

Icelandic Christianity

What are the characteristics of Icelandic Christianity? Of course Icelanders have always tried to import the best from all trends, fads and fashions abroad. Luther’s dramatic theology was a winner for some time. Baroque artistry won over some poets in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rationalism, romanticism and materialism had their protagonists in 18th and 19th centuries. In religion, classical theology was the main web into which all kinds of novelties and idiosyncrasies were woven or incorporated. But fundamental of course were the actual life-experiences of people in the country.

A striking aspect of Icelandic theology is the prominent, positive and important role that nature has played. The religious texts of this tradition deal primarily with what might be called limit or liminal issues, e.g. death, finitude, transience, threats to life, the futility of securing one’s own existence, helplessness, etc. And in order to explain and make the experiences of human life and development in the surrounding world intelligible, the writers of the past used metaphors and examples from nature. The human habitat was nature in her manifold forms. The country’s culture was a liminal culture, devising meaning, understanding and strategies for survival in harsh, unpredictable and dramatic nature. Nature was not only a threatening killer; it also proved to be a caring and nurturing mother, giving life to all creation – by God´s grace.

A common characteristic of the whole tradition of post-Reformation Icelandic preaching and theologizing is contextualization: the aim of correlating the Christian message to the situation and needs of the times. In Hymns of the Passion the portrait of Jesus Christ symbolized and thematicized people’s struggles, suffering, death and hope in such a way that the poems illuminated the meaning of human life and the nature of the world.

The same aim at correlation is also found in Vídlínspostilla. The penetrating discussion of human nature, social issues, the church, and options in human life struck Icelanders in a meaningful way, and not only gave real nourishment to the soul but also spoke theologically to the entire spectrum of life in this world.

Hymns of the Passion

The Hymns of the Passion had a lasting impact in Iceland for at least two centuries, from 1700 to 1900, because of the image of the suffering Jesus Christ depicted in them. The Jesus-figure, which was elegantly portrayed, grasped, united and expressed latent sentiments among Icelanders. Keeping in mind the ever-present threat of natural catastrophes, it comes as no surprise that it is precisely the most tragic moments of Jesus Christ’s career that stirred Icelanders. His struggle symbolized Icelandic suffering.

In Hymns of Passion  Icelanders were told that the hidden secret of the world is that love – not death – is the heartbeat of life, that light will overcome darkness, that warmth is stronger than cold, that human solidarity is more basic than solipsistic individualism, and finally that well-being is stronger than suffering. To a battered people, this seemed to be a message with meaning, and it provided food for thought as they struggled with disruptive developments in nature, human society, and in themselves. Jesus’ vision of love and service to others as the potential new being is the conclusion of the parabolic drama of Hymns of the Passion.

A life of service to others is the way people should live and also how the church should function in the process of giving birth to an authentic humanity — of making that which is fragile and broken a part of the life of Jesus, who intends all human beings for participation in life. And his love for others would – in a modern setting – also include nature as a neighbor.

Furthermore the Hymns of the Passion emphasize interrelationships in the world. That God is related to the world is strikingly testified to by Jesus’ life in the world. Similarly, all human beings are mutually responsible for each other’s humanity. The Icelandic and classical Christian attitude of “not too long and not too short” discloses a basic adherence to a world-view of balances. This view represents the ethics of moderation. The human being, in all of his or her actions and reactions, should strive not to break the eco-structure of the world.


If Hymns of the Passion is the first of the classics of Icelandic Christianity, the second is Vídalínspostilla. Its basic vision concerns power – which comes as no surprise to anyone who has experienced a large-scale event in Icelandic nature. Anyone who has been in the vicinity of an erupting volcano has experienced something profound, perhaps even had a peak experience due to this manifest power. The trembling in the earth, the unsettling thunder that accompanies a crater vomiting lava, the visual effects — all of these affect both the body and mind of the spectator. On such occasions, a strong sensation of this power is accompanied by an awareness of the minuteness of human life, of how fragile and precarious it is compared to such an awesome display. Icelanders have also known other powers at work: the gigantic strength of the ocean, the crushing jaws of glaciers, the total disregard shown by floods for human settlements and the scorn that blizzards often exhibited toward these tiny humans, trying to survive winter and darkness. By what power do you live — your own, or that of the world? These are straight Lutheran questions, those of classical theology. Vídalín’s dramatic and witty discourse was to the point, and people nodded their heads in agreement.

To this discussion of power, Vídalín always adds some qualifications. The right source of power in a human life will manifest itself in two ways. Faith is only one half of a person. The other half is work to benefit one’s neighbor. Faith has to be praxis, lived in service to others. But the other qualification in Vídalín’s thought concerns this stress on morality: the questioning of worldly lordships. Vídalín connects praxis and the question of power and preserves a highly dramatic and dynamic tension. Faith is rooted in God’s power. Upright morality results from faith, but this then immediately poses the question of whether faith is rooted in the only true source of power, i.e., God. Hence, the dialectic of faith and praxis entails an examination of the powers one relies on. Upright faith and morality necessarily lead to a strong hermeneutic of suspicion, as an integrating bond of faith and morality. At every moment, the Christian needs to examine his or her source, and in consequence open up his or her life to creativity for the benefit of others. But a perspective of critique has to accompany the dynamic of openness to creation in order to expose the false idols, the internal, bodily, or politico-cultural objects that receive the worship due only to God. The emphasis on the limits of the human being, coupled with a theology of power, seems to allow for a potentially fruitful theology, that accents holism and combines a hermeneutic of suspicion with hermeneutic of retrieval.

Tradition applied

In the Icelandic religious tradition there are powerful sources for contextualizing and revisioning theology.

Nature: First, the dimension of nature is an overarching one. Nature used to be the nexus of humans – threatening but also a source of nourishment: an interpretative framework, a source of metaphors for the meaning of human life, experiences, dangers and hopes. The preachers of Iceland, as well as the hymn-writers, have exploited this vein extensively – but few have launched into experimentation in liturgy. I think we could do more there – given the fact that all over the Western world, more and more people find nature to be the face of God, and they tell us pastors that they experience something divine in nature – even more so than in the liturgy of our churches.

Jesus in nature: Secondly, the practical theological profile of Hymns of the Passion concerns Imitatione Christi. The basic vision of the hymns, the view that the intention of love is the welfare of all of creation, is vital in our present world, and it confronts us with serious questions. It just might be that the basic vision, coupled with the strong social awareness of the hymns, requires active participation by others, i.e. a divinization of the world or the ascendance of the kind of humanity that Jesus labored to create. Nature becomes not only a bearer of beauty and love, but also the suffering servant. What does it mean when we see Jesus’ suffering in Nature?

What power? Thirdly, the vision of Vidalínspostilla seems to describe an antithesis to all worldly powers. Everything in the world is considered impotent but nonetheless capable of being energized, if structured in the proper way. The human being is portrayed as basically in need of the proper energy, namely the power of God, who remains the central power plant of absolutely pure cosmic energy. But the network is fragile. Whenever the human being tries to plug into the secondary order of power, the connection is broken, the balance is lost; the power system fails, with an insurmountable loss to all. First of all, the individual is paralyzed, and because of a cosmic interrelatedness, everyone is left in disorder. In conventional terms the question is one of idolatry and faith.

This basic vision seems relevant to our postmodern sentiments, where there are struggles not only between powers. By what source do we live as individuals, as cultures, as a world? Do we live from our own power or from the power that is the fountain of life?

In a world that has gone through an energy crisis, global warming, crises of limited resources and political failures, the question of power remains of interest. By what force do we live? What happens when our energy runs out? There are also experiences of powerlessness in our personal lives. We are also concerned about power in politics, oppression, and the struggle of the oppressed for liberation. How can we meaningfully put these into our prayers and worship?

Sigurdur Arni Thordarson

Leitourgia – annual meeting. Háteigskirkja,
Reykjavík, 12 November, 2015