Many Catholics would be bemused to realise that in some churches the eve of All Saints Day is celebrated as Reformation Day and is dedicated to Martin Luther. On 31 October 1517 the then Augustinian monk Martin Luther is said to have posted his theses on the Church door in Wittenberg in outrage at the selling of indulgences and other abuses.
This was the first in a series of events that led to the separation between the Catholic and the Reformed Churches in Germany and elsewhere. At the time Catholics would not have imagined the possibility that Luther might gatecrash the gathering of the Saints on All Saints Day. For many it would still be a stretch.
The feast of All Saints remembers Catholics who gained a reputation for holiness. They were recognised as worthy of reverence and people prayed through them to God. From the early days of Christianity the shrines of martyrs were places of prayer to which Catholic authorities gave importance. To pray through the martyrs gave power and force to Christians who were forced to reckon with what it might cost to follow Jesus’ path. As time went on a similar reverence was given to Christians who had died peacefully after living exceptionally devoted lives. Many Catholics saw praying to the saints as like a visit to the family doctor. They could have a good relationship with saints; praying to them helped them to think about their spiritual health; hearing of the lives of saints helped them to see what a healthy Christian life was like. Saints were like the rainbow. They refracted the light of Christ into the many different ways of following Jesus.
Saints, too, were local. They were associated with particular villages and regions, like a divining rod through which God’s gifts could come, and approachable because they were familiar. They had known your grandparents and ancestors, and their relatives were still to be seen. Holiness was rooted in the families, in the local celebrations and in the shared life of villages, towns, convents and monasteries. The local saints also reminded you that your own dead family members were with them and could be the focus of your prayer. The feast of All Saints could point both to the many people who were recognised by the Church as saints, and also to the truth that as members of Christ’s people we are all holy, all saints.
One of the temptations of honouring saints is to think that Jesus only likes people who are really and obviously holy. That he has special friends. In the Gospel he does, of course, but they were often disruptive, excluded from polite society, controversial and despised. He came to call public sinners, not the just, and he was rejected for spending time with them and including them among his followers. In the Gospel stories they include extortionist tax-collectors, invading soldiers, prostitutes, the people who denied him, ran away when danger came, and who persecuted his followers with a passion. They were the ones who came to believe in him. We know many of them as saints. And among the saints of our own day we also know people like them.
For many the idea of saints might be strange. But all of us have been at times touched by the goodness and hope of the most unlikely people and have been inspired by our memories of them.
That is one reason why we might be kind to Martin Luther on the eve of All Saints Day – Halloween. He was the great disruptor, disturbed the peace of the Church, called out abuses, scandalised the pious, and divided families, towns and nations, breaking up Christendom. His inheritance includes the breaking of relationships and the birth of enmities. And yet he was fiercely attached to Jesus and to the life-changing grace he brought. He believed in him. He also presents a facet of Jesus’ story and of the following of him.
Luther didn’t have much time for devotion to saints – he saw, unfairly I think, devotion to them as part of a grace machine. So, it is good that he can look in from close by, but still from outside, at All Saints Day. He reminds us of the grace that God’s love is and of the odd forms that it can take.