Friday, October 27, 2017

Luther: For All the Saints

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In many Lutheran congregations, Church festivals are celebrated on the Sunday after the actual date. Because we don’t want to minimize the importance of the Lutheran Reformation, the festival of All Saints is most often kept separate from the festival of the Reformation, even though they are but a day apart.
“Martin Luther on His Deathbed”
Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
1546. (Lower Saxony State Museum,
Hannover, Germany)

At the risk of appearing as a morbid curmudgeon while the rest of the Lutheran church is celebrating 500 years of the Reformation, the death of Martin Luther is something worth considering.

The fact that he was not burned at the stake as were his reformist predecessors is noteworthy in itself. Luther avoided the death of a labeled heretic, even when he constantly spoke his mind in the presence of nobility and clergy alike; even when he wrote against errors in the Roman Catholic church; even when he wanted to give the common folk what was denied them and protect them from church-endorsed heretical practises. It is easy for us to thump our chests and declare that truth always triumphs – we have 500 years of insulation between us and the reality of Luther’s day. Luther’s “peaceful death,” therefore, is important.

Regional folklore had a tight hold on the people of Luther’s day, and superstitions were sometimes interwoven in the already-questionable teachings of Roman Catholicism. Hence, the church was quick to invent accounts of the reformer’s death to suit their agenda. To us it may seem a trite matter, but Luther’s opponents did not want him to have a “peaceful death.” Doing so would force the papacy to recognize that Luther was indeed in heaven, and that, in turn, would topple massive chunks of their theology. Instead, they wished he died either suddenly or in his sleep – both would bolster convictions that he died an evil death and therefore was of the devil. Such were the superstitions of the day. Ill rumors were spread immediately after his death that ranged from shrieks in the death chamber to demons fluttering about Luther’s room to Luther’s empty grave emitting a sulfurous odor. To preempt such nonsense, the death chamber was filled with many witnesses who recorded a far different event.
“Luther’s letztes Bekenntnis”
(Luther’s last Confession)
William Pape. 1905.
(Luther’s Death House Museum,
Eisleben, Germany)

Ever the reformer, even in death, Luther did not exchange his clothes for a monk’s frock, as would have been acceptable – especially to those who expected him to repent of his teachings and return at the last to Roman Catholicism. Luther did not recant any of his beliefs. Neither did he hold a rosary, as was customary.

In his final moments, Luther was asked,"Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?"

He simply replied, “Yes.”

Luther’s resolute confession, along with his empty hands, could arguably be one of his greatest sermons.

We rejoice that Luther died thus, we rejoice for all the saints who have gone before us with the sign of the Cross, and we rejoice that Jesus Christ defeated death by His own death and resurrection so that we may be added to His train.

May The Lord keep us ever in the palm of His hand, and bring us to that day when we, too, may endure a “peaceful death.”

No comments:

Post a Comment