Question: I was raised as a Roman Catholic and became a Lutheran when I married one. I am comfortable with the Lutheran liturgy and I am learning how to sing. I like the preaching and the fellowship of the congregation. But I really miss the saints. In the Catholic Church the saints were like family. We had pictures and statues of them and prayed to them (kind of like talking to them). They were a big part of our life. Is there a place for saints in the Lutheran Church?
Answer: There is a place for saints in the Lutheran Church, but it won’t be as big a place as you experienced in the Catholic Church and in your Catholic home. The image above this article is a triptych above an altar in St. Mary’s Church in Eisleben, Germany—Martin Luther’s home town and the church where he preached his last sermon on February 16, 1546. Notice that Mary is in the center holding the Christ child, and that she is crowned! These central figures are surrounded by other saints. So saints didn’t disappear from Lutheran church life. They just received a subordinate role, especially in church art, to Christ, the Word and the Sacraments.
One of the big issues in the Reformation was the scriptural reference to the sole mediation of Christ versus praying to the saints as intercessors with God. Since the Bible said that Christ is only mediator and advocate with God the Father (1 Timothy 2:5), the cult of the saints was abolished. The Augsburg Confession, Article 21, asserted: “Scripture does not teach us to invoke the saints, or to ask for help from the saints; for it puts us before Christ as the one mediator, propitiator, high priest and intercessor.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 21, section 4 does admit that “the angels pray for us, and the saints too.” In other words, we cannot—should not—pray to the saints; but the saints in heaven pray for us, just as we pray for one another here on earth. What happened was the proverbial throwing out the baby with the bath water. The saints, by and large, disappeared from the life of Lutheran and other Protestant Churches and, by and large, from the consciousness of worshipers (except for Biblical figures in stained glass windows).
Yet there should be a role for saints as examples of faith and also of God’s grace at work in human lives, and therefore they should be remembered as witnesses to the faith and models of the godly life. Martin Luther even regarded Mary the Mother of our Lord as the highest example of faith because she said in response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She said “yes” to God and made herself completely and totally available to house the Word of God. Aren’t we also asked to do this too in various ways?
At the time of the Reformation most of the saints’ days were eliminated because in the late medieval culture a feast day meant a holiday from work. One of the social reforms of the Reformation was to make people more productive. King Henry VIII of England abolished all saints’ days between July 1 and September 29 (the feast of Michael and All Angels), except for Mary (August 15) and apostles, so that the farmers would get the harvest in. In all 17 saints’ days were abolished just in that limited time span.
In the prayer books (breviaries) readings for saints’ days also included legends of questionable reliability, which also Catholic reformers wanted eliminated or made more historically accurate.
In the Lutheran and Anglican calendars saints’ days were mostly limited to the biblical figures—Mary, the apostles and evangelists, and a few other biblical saints like St. Stephen the first martyr, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Michael and all angels. The saints’ days were completely abolished in the Reformed Churches.
In recent Episcopal and Lutheran worship books, the calendar of commemorations has been greatly expanded to include figures from different times and places who can serve as models in different vocations. Parishes were encouraged to choose from this list saints whose lives and work might be especially meaningful to the local congregation or parish. If a congregation or parish is named after a saint, that saint’s day might be a special observance in the life of the community. For example, the Episcopal parish we attend for worship is named after St. Augustine and commemorates him regularly.
How shall these days be observed? Well, with few exceptions they won’t be observed on Sundays. Even the Roman Catholic Church does not allow the propers (prayers and readings) for the Lord’s Day (Sunday) to be suppressed for other commemorations, with very few exceptions. So commemorating the saints liturgically means having weekday services. These services are not a big draw because of people’s jobs and family responsibilities. But it is possible. When I was pastor of Christ the Mediator Lutheran Church on the south side of Chicago we had a weekly Thursday Eucharist at 7 a.m., at which I often commemorated the saint whose day it was.
Popular customs developed in connection with many particular saint’s days. There are also some special customs that are associated with particular saints that are observed in some Lutheran congregations, like St. Nicholas the bringer of gifts on December 6, St. Lucia (Sankta Lucia—in Swedish congregations) the bringer of light on December 13, and St. Francis (renewer of the church) on October 4. The blessing of animals has become a popular practice in many churches (including Lutheran churches) in connection with St. Francis of Assisi because of his relationship with the creation. St. Luke’s Day on October 18 has become a day for anointing the sick in many churches (including Lutheran). Lutherans observed Reformation Day on October 31 (Eve of All Saints’ Day), now usually transferred to the preceding Sunday, and much is made of Martin Luther on that day. There are many statues of Luther in Lutheran churches. Historic St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC has these windows of Luther and his colleague Philipp Melanchthon. Both are commemorated in the calendars in contemporary Lutheran worship books.
Pastors can use the lives of the saints a basis for children’s homilies (which also reach the adults). Sunday Schools can teach the children about the saints, especially our Lord’s apostles. Several times during my years of ministry I have invited children to dress up as their favorite saint on All Saints’ Sunday (in proximity to Halloween), and was surprised to see their imaginations at work. I remember the boy who came as John the Baptist with a head on a platter! (See also my Frank Answer About Christians Celebrating Halloween.)
There is a role for saints in the Lutheran Church, not the least of whom are our own faithful departed. At funerals I often preached on the life of the departed, looking for instances of grace in their lives so that God may be praised rather than the sinner. But we are all saints and sinners at the same time, so it doesn’t hurt to point out the flaws in the lives of the saints as well as their virtues. We are all justified by faith through God’s grace because of Christ. The saints can show us this in their lives.
Pastor Frank Senn
Blessing of pets on St. Francis’s Day (October 4) at Grace Lutheran Church, Bayonne, New Jersey on St. Francis’ Day