March 2, 2016 — The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson
In 2014 Synod Council approved theme for the next 6 years called “Celebrating Renewal”, which lifts up characteristics of past church leaders which will help us move toward the future.
2015 we celebrated “Bold Leadership” and the example of Jan Hus. This year we celebrate Service and the example of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Here is her story from the January 2016 STAR.
A life of privilege creates a legacy of service
by Marcia Hahn
The stories about St. Elizabeth of Hungary have been handed down for 800 years, recounting her unwavering devotion to the poor and the sick, her deep religious faith in God, and a few tales of miracles. She lived to only age 24, but her good works and humble life in the early 13th century endeared her to those she served then and inspire public charitable services today.
Born the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary in 1207, Elizabeth was betrothed in marriage at age four and sent to live with the Thuringian court at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach to be educated. From an early age her religious devotion was evident as she spent many hours in prayer and pious observances. At age 14, she married Ludwig IV of Thuringia, and their happy union produced three children.
With her husband’s blessing and support, Elizabeth used her status and wealth to feed the poor and tend to the sick.
“It was a time when noble families assumed that their position was God given and if they had a lot, that was how God wanted it,” said Kit Kleinhans, Wartburg College professor of religion who holds the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Luther Heritage and Mission.
“Elizabeth, though, was influenced by St. Francis of Assisi who had a heart for serving the poor and needy. She was married to the ruler of Thuringia, yet she expressed herself by feeding the hungry and building a hospital.”
During Ludwig’s travels as a ruler, he left Elizabeth in control of his finances and household. She used this opportunity to distribute alms to help the poor and share bread from the castle with hundreds of poor and hungry people each day. She built a 28-bed hospital at the foot of the castle where she personally helped care for those who were afflicted with leprosy and other illnesses.
“Elizabeth would only have had to step out the front gate of the castle to be among people who were less fortunate,” Kleinhans said.
“The notion of bringing those people together to be tended to and well fed was a remarkable commitment to living out her faith.”
Ludwig died of the plague while on a crusade, and Elizabeth’s in-laws exiled her from the castle.
A widow at age 20, Elizabeth and her children were forced into poverty wandering the streets. Elizabeth moved to Marburg, Germany, where she lived an austere life under the guidance of a severe spiritual advisor. She built a hospital at Marburg and continued to serve the poor and sick until her death.
Stories of miracles have always been associated with St. Elizabeth and are depicted in paintings, stained glass, and statues in Germany and Eastern Europe. One famous story was the miracle of roses, in which Elizabeth was carrying bread smuggled from the castle kitchen to give to the poor. She ran into her husband who asked to see what she was carrying under her cloak. He turned back the cloth and a bouquet of roses was revealed.
Another story tells how Elizabeth helped a man who was dying of leprosy by bringing him into the castle and laying him in Ludwig’s bed. Upon Ludwig’s return to the castle, he ripped off the covers and saw the crucified Christ.
“One of the challenges about someone from this long ago is that we don’t know how accurate all of the stories about her are,” Kleinhans said. “What we do know is that Elizabeth was canonized as a saint just four years after her death, so she clearly had a powerful impact on people at that time to have had that much support for sainthood.”
Elizabeth worked to improve people’s lives, and building hospitals created a way to serve people long after she was gone.
Many hospitals in Europe and the U.S. carry the St. Elizabeth name.
“It is great to have motivation and to help others, but to create a real and lasting change requires a lot more,” Kleinhans said.
“Elizabeth did that, and we continue to do that as Lutherans.”
Kleinhans cites Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Services in America, and the Lutheran women who make quilts as part of a bigger mission as examples of living faith in the world.
“From our position of privilege, we, too, can help others who are less fortunate.”
St. Elizabeth lived at Wartburg Castle 300 years before Martin Luther and the reformation, but she is celebrated as part of the renewal because she lived the kind of life of service that Lutherans value.
“Elizabeth is a great example because she was born into a life of privilege, but she wasn’t limited by that,” Kleinhans said. “She wanted to help others who were less fortunate, and she packed a lot into a very short life.”