On the Eve of All Saints’ Day

Taken from Roland Bainton’s masterful biography on Martin Luther, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.

The Church, while taking an individualistic view of sin, takes a corporate view of goodness. Sins must be accounted for one by one, but goodness can be pooled; and there is something to pool because the saints, the Blessed Virgin, and the Son of God were better than they needed to be for their own salvation. Christ in particular, being both sinless and God, is possessed of an unbounded store. These superfluous merits of the righteous constitute a treasury which is transferable to those whose accounts are in arrears. The transfer is effected through the Church and, particularly, through the pope, to whom as the successor of St. Peter have been committed the keys to bind and loose. Such transfer of credit was called an indulgence. …

During the decade in which Luther was born a pope had declared that the efficacy of indulgences extended to purgatory for the benefit of the living and the dead alike. In the case of the living there was no assurance of avoiding purgatory entirely because God alone knew the extent of the unexpiated guilt and the consequent length of the sentence, but the Church could tell to the year and the day by how much the term could be reduced, whatever it was. And in the case of those already dead and in purgatory, the sum of whose wickedness was complete and known, the immediate release could be offered. …

There were places in which these signal mercies were more accessible than in others. For no theological reason but in the interest of advertising, the Church associated the dispensing of the merits of the saints with visitation upon the relics of the saints. Popes frequently specified precisely how much benefit could be derived from viewing each holy bone. Every relic of the saints in Halle, for example, was endowed by Pope Leo X with an indulgence for the reduction of purgatory by four thousand years.

The greatest storehouse for such treasures was Rome. Here in the single crypt of St. Callistus forty popes were buried and 76,000 martyrs. Rome had a piece of Moses’ burning bush and three hundred particles of the Holy Innocents. Rome had the portrait of Christ on the napkin of St. Veronica. Rome had the chains of St. Paul and the scissors with which the Emperor Domitian clipped the hair of St. John. The walls of Rome near the Appian gate showed the white spots left by the stones which turned to snowballs when hurled by the mob against St. Peter before his time was come. A church in Rome had the crucifix which leaned over to talk to St. Brigitta. … In front of the Lateran were the Scala Sancta, twenty-eight stairs, supposedly those which once stood in front of Pilate’s palace. He who crawled up them on hands and knees, repeating a Pater Noster for each one, could thereby release a soul from purgatory. … No city on earth was so plentifully supplied with holy relics, and no city on earth was so richly endowed with spiritual indulgences as Holy Rome. …

As a parish priest in a village church Luther was responsible for the spiritual welfare of his flock. They were procuring indulgences as he had once done himself. Rome was not the only place in which such favors available, for the popes delegated to many churches in Christendom the privilege of dispensing indulgence, and the Castle Church at Wittenberg was the recipient of a very unusual concession granting full remissions of all sins. The day selected for the proclamation was the first of November, the day of All Saints, whose merits provided the ground of the indulgences and whose relics were then on display.

Fredrick the Wise, the elector of Saxony, Luther’s prince, was a man of simple and sincere piety who had devoted a lifetime to making Wittenberg the Rome of Germany as a depository of sacred relics. He had made a journey to all parts of Europe, and diplomatic negotiations were facilitated by an exchange of relics. The king of Denmark, for example, sent him fragments of King Canute and St. Brigitta.

The collection had as its nucleus a genuine thorn from the crown of Christ, certified to have pierced the saviour’s brow. Fredrick so built up the collection from this inherited treasure that the catalogue illustrated by Lucas Cranach in 1509 listed 5,005 particles, to which were attached indulgences calculated to reduce purgatory by 1,443 years. The collection included one tooth of St. Jerome, of St. Chrysostom four pieces, of St. Bernard six, and of St. Augustine four; of Our Lady four hairs, three pieces of her cloak, four from her girdle, and seven from the veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ. The relics of Christ included one piece from his swaddling clothes, thirteen from his crib, one wisp of straw, one piece of the gold brought by the Wise Men and three of the myrrh, one strand of Jesus’ beard, once of the nails driven into his hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one piece of the stone on which Jesus stood to ascend into heaven, and one twig of Moses’ burning bush.

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2 thoughts on “On the Eve of All Saints’ Day

  1. Pingback: Frenetic Friday: Reformation Day | keachfan

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