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Reformation and All Saints and Grief

On the last Sunday in October, many protestant churches celebrate "Reformation Sunday." On Halloween in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg Germany. Basically, he was inviting other academics to a friendly debate. Many in the Catholic Church (back then, they called it simply "the Church") wanted to change things; an Italian bishop named Gesparo Contarini, for instance, was working for "change from within," particularly related to how the Church governed itself. Luther was more of an academic theologian, and it was not unusual to discuss academic things in this kind of debate format. His theses, however, rocked the Church. He updated theological understandings of sin, repentance, and justification; he challenged the Pope's authority over the afterlife and the Church's understandings of purgatory; he called out as corrupt the idea that earthly money could buy "indulgences" that would have any effect in the afterlife. Because his 95 theses undermined the power of the Church and the Pope by questioning their authority and calling their funding mechanism corrupt, this friendly academic debate quickly turned acrid. Thus the Reformation was started.

Another part of the indulgence trade was the collection of holy relics. These could be items that saints had touched or used in a miracle, or they could be parts of the mortal remains of the saints themselves. There was somehow an exchange between collected relics and years of relief from purgatory. Cardinal Albrecht thought his collection of relics would get him more than 39 million years off being in purgatory. Luther did not at first want to abolish the idea of purgatory and did not at first object to the collection of relics, but he was always against this sort of exchange of years in purgatory with material things, whether collection of relics or purchased indulgences. It may be this connection between saints and fundraising that Luther was hinting at by nailing his these to the church door on the eve of All Saint's Day.

Saints themselves have never much been emphasized in Protestant churches. This debate goes far back in the history of the church. The problem is whether we are worshiping saints or not. Worship should be reserved for God alone, so when we start praying or otherwise giving privilege to anything else, theologians get nervous. People have strong emotional attachments to those who they remember and revere. We carry our loved ones in our hearts and memories. For pastoral reasons, reverence for the saints had to be preserved, and in the Second Council of Nicaea, a compromise of semantics was developed. It was allowed to venerate icons of saints, but not to worship them. We love the people who have gone before us, and in the hope of Jesus Christ our Lord, we believe in the resurrection of the saints. We include all believers in that community. In the funeral liturgy, we say that in death, the work of sanctification that was begun in our baptism is complete, meaning that ultimately, we all become holy. Every Christian who raised me or taught me in Sunday School is a saint.

Here in First Presbyterian Church of Pauls Valley, we will probably not make a big deal of Reformation Sunday, though there may be a distinctly German tone to the music and liturgy in honor of our roots. We usually read a list of those in our community who have died in the past year, not only as a way to give ourselves comfort, but also as a way of reverently remembering them as the saints that they are. We still feel their loss, and always will until we are reunited with them in the presence of our Lord.

On All Saint's Day, November 1st, the Pauls Valley Ministerial Alliance will be putting on a Service of Grief in our sanctuary. We recognize that many have lost the saints of their lives during the pandemic and have not been able to reverently remember them. Some have died alone due to Covid. Others have died from other causes, but they also had to be alone due to Covid. The gathering of family had to be limited after these significant losses. We have suffered other losses during the pandemic: businesses have closed, rites of passages like graduation have been skipped. In recognition of all of these losses and the deferred grief that goes with them, we will have words of comfort, time to remember, pastors standing by for support. In these ways we wish to honor those lost and those still living. Change is going to happen. The opposite of change is death. Usually change also means loss, and that means grief. Through loss, though, we continue to serve the Lord and comfort each other in the hope of the grace of our Lord.

--Chas