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Wanted: More sinner-saints

All Saint’s Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the ministry of the faithfully departed. Metro Lutheran photos: Bob Hulteen

Travelers heading south out of Duluth, Minnesota, these days will notice a billboard, erected alongside Interstate 35, by the (Roman Catholic) College of Saint Scholastica. The message reads, “The world needs more saints.”

Clearly this small church-related institution is playing on its name — and hoping the message will lead potential students to want to enroll there. But it’s a worthy sentiment, and one that should get Lutherans thinking.

If Martin Luther — or the Apostle Paul — had prepared the billboard, it might have read, “The world needs more sinner/saints!”

As Lutheran congregations prepare for the Festival of All Saints, the first Sunday in November (the actual day being November 1), it is worth reflecting on the Lutheran understanding of what a “saint” is, and how that impacts (or should impact) our daily lives.

Sainthood isn’t what it used to be. Before the Reformation, it was common to think of saints as “super Christians.” This idea developed sometime after Christianity became the established religion in Europe. The belief arose that a select few disciples had succeeded in living such exemplary lives that they were able to accumulate “surplus merit,” enough to guarantee their arrival in heaven. (By this time, the Apostle Paul’s understanding of salvation by pure grace had been displaced by the notion that merits believers accumulate are required.)

These exemplary Christians were believed to have performed miracles. Portions of their skeletons were distributed as relics worthy of reverence. (A relic from the body of a “saint” needed to be located and placed within the altar before a Christian church building could be consecrated.) Ordinary believers could pray to these deceased believers and obtain blessings. (Martin Luther once prayed to St. Anne while caught in a violent lightning storm; he promised her that, if she spared his life, he would give up on his plans to study law and join a religious order instead.)

All Saints Sunday is a time to remember those faithful who have departed this life in the past year.

But saints are also simultaneously sinners. This paradoxical affirmation is central to Lutheran teaching.

Over time, notably in Western Christianity, there developed a galaxy of interlocking beliefs: there was a place of cleansing, required of all believers before entering heaven; one needed sufficient “merits” to move through this place of purgation (cleansing); saints had a surplus and ordinary sinners could acquire some of it; an indulgence (available for purchase) could enable this transaction.

‘Twas the night before All Saints …

This medieval view of sainthood was foreign to early Christianity. Martin Luther realized this and called the church in his day to return to the New Testament understanding of sainthood — a striving after holiness and righteous living. It was Luther’s direct attack on the indulgence system that brought him into conflict with his own church hierarchy and launched the Reformation. His attack took the form of 95 theses (propositions intended for debate), issued in 1517 on the eve of All Saints Day, or “All Hallows Eve” (from which we get the name “Halloween”).

Many of the New Testament letters penned (or dictated) by Paul the Apostle assume that all the faithful baptized are “saints.” The introductory paragraphs of Paul’s letters address his readers in this way.

But saints are also (simultaneously) sinners. This paradoxical affirmation is central to Lutheran teaching. Paul called believers to live “in Christ,” which would result in a “new creation” (a saintly existence), but this is a process that no believer ever fully attains in this life.

The recognition that we are “saints now but not yet” isn’t designed to create despair, but rather to confront believers with the reality of how things really are, and to encourage humility among the faithful. It’s the indelible (if invisible) mark of baptism that assures believers that they’re part of the saintly (holy) fellowship.

So, where does that leave the festival day of “All Saints” for Lutherans? Departing from the medieval idea that this day is reserved for a celebration of “beatified” super-Christians, Lutherans mark the first Sunday in November by remembering those who have gone before, and who are now numbered among the “blessed dead.”

November 1, All Saints Day, was followed in the medieval church by “All Souls Day,” observed on November 2. Originally the “super-Christians” were remembered in the first instance, “ordinary” baptized believers in the second. For obvious reasons, the reformers folded these two days into one. Lutherans do not celebrate “All Souls” as a separate day.

A new cloud of witnesses

There’s another way the faithful departed are celebrated. Especially since Vatican II, a Roman Catholic conclave that met in the early 1960s, Western Christians (including Lutherans) have followed the practice of remembering with thanksgiving a host of exemplary believers. This “calendar of commemorations” assigns notable Christians, worthy of imitation, to specific dates throughout the year. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., is remembered on January 15; Martin Luther himself on February 18; Hans Nielsen Hauge, the great Norwegian pietist on March 29; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian/martyr on April 9; and so on, throughout the calendar year.

Every Lutheran congregation observes All Saints Sunday in its own way. Typically these days, names of members of the congregation who have died since the previous All Saints festival are lifted up in some way. They may be listed in the worship folder. The names may be recited from the altar. In congregations where a church bell is part of the architecture, it is not uncommon to have a tolling bell ring a solitary note for each name as it is read. (If there have been many funerals during a calendar year, this process can take a while.) Some congregations invite parishioners to light a candle in memory of a departed loved one.

As if to illustrate the sinner/saint paradox, the great English musician Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed the music to what has become the quintessential hymn for All Saints Sunday, “For All the Saints.” Eventually he dropped away from Christianity altogether. That doesn’t take anything away from the power, or the authenticity, of this hymn — but it surely illustrates the fact that the greatest among believers, the “saintliest” if you will, are still earthen vessels.

The new creation we are becoming is always a pure gift from God. And that is what the faithful celebrate, more than anything else, on All Saints Sunday.

National Lutheran Choir honors All Saints

The National Lutheran Choir (NLC) will once again offer two All Saints concerts during the first week of November. Under the artistic direction of Dr. David Cherwien, the NLC seeks to strengthen, renew, and preserve the Lutheran heritage of choral music through the highest standards of performance and literature.

The 2013 All Saints concerts will be offered Saturday, November 2, at 7 p.m., at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, and Sunday, November 3, at 4 p.m., at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Minnesota.

The NLC will welcome Craig Hella Johnson, noted conductor, composer, teacher, and troubadour back to the Twin Cities for the program. Born in Virginia, Minnesota, Johnson studied at St. Olaf College, the Juilliard School, and the University of Illinois, and earned his doctorate at Yale University.

The theme of the program is “we are so lightly here (this sacred life),” a collection of music and poetry that weaves together the secular and the sacred. Johnson has planned a meditative concert experience combining choral classics (including movements from Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna), spirituals, poetic offerings (from Emily Dickinson, e.e. cummings, and others), and a quiet time for remembrance and reflection. The All Saints program is dedicated to the life and music of beloved local composer Stephen Paulus.

For tickets, call 612/722-2301 or visit the NLC website at www.nlca.org.

Bob Hulteen

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