Mar 17, 2015

Observing the Church Year in the Home, Part II (Or, Why Commemorate the Saints?)

By Aubri Hale

In Part I, I discussed ways that families can use the seasons of a church calendar in our homes. Now I’d  like to give some attention to the commemoration of saints, or saints’ days, on the church calendar.

Having grown up in the Baptist church, I was very leery about commemorating saints. For me the very word saint was heavily associated with false teachings and heresies. Martin Luther himself was careful when approaching saints’ days. However, he didn’t completely dismiss the practice, because he found it useful. He said, “Next to Holy Scripture there certainly is no more useful book for Christendom than that of the lives of the saints, especially when unadulterated and authentic. For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their suffering and dying” (What Luther Says: An Anthology - Saints, p. 3989).

But as already stated, our honored saints should be remembered with some caution. Luther’s goal was “to wean his people from the adoration and veneration of the saints which had crept into the church in order to lead them back to venerate Christ alone and to serve not the dead but the living saints in need, according to Christ’s command” (Joel R. Basely, Festival Sermons of Martin Luther).

When we remember the saints who have gone before us, it is important not to allow them to take Christ’s place as our focus and advocate. We should also use discernment when choosing which saints to commemorate (there are some whose presence on our calendar seems surprising), and remember that, like all Christians, they too were capable of sin and error.

For my children, I find marking particular saint days to be useful in the following ways.

It teaches ways to show love to others. Good works are done not for God but for our neighbor. I can use St. Elizabeth of Hungary as an example of charitable giving: one who gave to the needy and sick out of her abundance. We make bread for our neighbors on the day she is commemorated simply for the joy of giving to our neighbor. We can also visit the shut-in and sick or donate to a charity.

It is a history and geography lesson. When we remember St. Martin of Tours we can learn about the Roman army, cavalry soldiers, and the way in which Christianity was first outlawed and then legalized. We can look at a map and see where Italy and Rome are located. On Henry Melchior Muhlenberg‘s commemoration day, we can study Lutheranism in early America. Giving our children knowledge of the way church history and secular history intertwine is valuable.

Teaching them about the past grounds them as they walk in the present. It allows them to have a greater perspective on life when they understand that there were people and ways of life before them. God worked among peoples and cultures long before we were created. He works in cultures that exist today and He will continue His redemptive works in the future.

It gives them examples of living under the cross. We can cite any of the martyrs throughout history for this one. I don’t shy away from telling my babies that some Christians were and still are killed for the faith. We learn about the deaths of John the Baptist, Stephen, Paul, Lawrence of Rome, Perpetua and Felicitas. Suffering for Christ should not be a strange concept for Christians, even for little children. I have to note here that there are often incredible stories surrounding the deaths or quotes from those martyred that have been passed down through time. But not all of these are verifiable or Christian, and therefore I’m not always comfortable teaching them as fact to my children. If I do include them I will make a point to tell them that they might have said this. If the story of a martyr’s death comes with a questionable miracle I just leave that out.

It gives us something specific to pray for on a certain day. St. Martin’s Day is a good reminder to pray for soldiers. There isn’t really any way to know for certain if Martin actually stopped and cut his cloak in half for a cold beggar, but it is a good story of loving someone else---of sharing and putting another’s needs before your own. Also, it reminds us to pray for the homeless or for those without the warmth and comforts with which we surround ourselves. On St. Joseph Guardian of Jesus day, we pray for and honor fathers, grandfathers or other father figures in our lives.

Some days are just fun or are surrounded by lovely traditions that I want to include in our own family traditions. For example, the feasts of St. Nicholas and St. Lucy are favorites of ours. There is a lot of myth and legend in the histories of these saints, much of which I don’t even bring up with my children. If I do, I point out that it is just a story and emphasize what was probably true. On St. Nicholas Day the children leave their shoes out, get chocolate coins in them, eat candy canes and think of ways to be generous to others. I look forward to St. Lucy’s Day because I love coffee, hot rolls and candle light in the morning, per traditions on her day. I can enjoy this beauty and glean from Lucy’s story the reality of martyrdom. I can also teach a lesson about Christ being the light in the darkness of our world.

It teaches that we are all saints. I teach my children that all of God’s people are called holy in Christ. We are all set apart as His and therefore we are all saints by faith. The saints on our calendar are not any more holy than we are.

It is a way to point out bad theology or incorrect uses of vocation. I can use the actions of some saints on the calendar to show my children that a lot of the honored Christians committed very bad sins. We see this many times throughout Scripture with God’s chosen. Some saints’ actions are due to a misunderstanding of God’s Word, but not all. Just like us, they were sinners. Elizabeth of Hungary, commemorated in November, is an example of this. We could argue that she sinned in her vocation as a mother by committing herself to a convent. Of course, I can’t say why she did what she did for certain, but I can imagine the circumstances she found herself in (plus incorrect doctrine) most likely led her to misguidedly retreat from her call as a mother. I don’t think we should shy away from the “bad examples,” but use them as teaching opportunities and topics of discussion with our children.

Whatever we teach, remember that the best use of the saints’ days on our calendar is to always point to how Christ is faithful to His children, not the other way around. We see over and over again how miserably sinful people are and how gracious and merciful God is despite our sin. Our children should be taught to see that too. May God help us all to fulfill our duties faithfully.

Further resources:


Aubri Hale lives in Bancroft, Nebraska. She is the wife of a pastor and a keeper of house, unmatched socks, and too many sippy cups. She and her husband have six children and a seventh due in April of 2015. She was raised in Texas and received a BA in History from the University of Texas at Austin, but always just wanted to be a wife and mother. She enjoys singing hymns, observing the church year with her family, baking muffins, reading if she can stay awake and drinking strong coffee. Aubri blogs at A Bundle of Myrrh and The Church Year in the Home.

Title Image: "Family Worship" By Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 

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