For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
I like to check The Book of Common Prayer each morning to see which saintly person from the past we are to remember on that day. Some of them I recognize. Some of them I don’t. But always interesting to think about these lives lived out over the centuries. A few days ago, on November 19, I saw that the person to be remembered that day was Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary.
I was intrigued by this Elizabeth, so I decided to explore a bit. I soon learned that Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary, actually never spent much time in Hungary. Born into the Hungarian aristocracy in 1207, at the tender age of 4 she was betrothed to Ludvig, son of the ruler of Thuringia, part of what is now Germany. And not only was she betrothed when she was only 4 years old, she was also sent to the Wartburg Castle in Thuringia to be raised by her future in-laws! When she turned 14, she and Ludwig married, and shortly after that he became the ruler of Thuringia when his father died. While still in her teens, Elizabeth gave birth to three children at the Wartburg. At the age of 20, she became a widow when her husband died on a Crusade. Granted, none of this speaks of saintliness, but I’ll get to that later. The mere fact that she spent most of her life at the famous Wartburg intrigued me.
My husband and I had visited the Wartburg with our young children in early 1972. We marveled at the strength and beauty of the castle which we knew had sheltered Martin Luther in 1521-1522. He was there because his life was in danger after his stance at the Diet of Worms, where he had refused to recant his “heretical” teaching of “sola fide” and “sola Scriptura.” “Here I stand,” he had boldly said. “I can do no other. So help me God.”
Faith alone. Scripture alone. From early childhood we had been raised on these strong Reformation principles. And now here we were, looking at the very walls and breathing the very air of the castle that had been “a mighty fortress” for this giant who had insisted that Scripture taught our being right with God could not be bought (through indulgences) or earned (through good works), but was a gift from God, received through faith and faith alone.
We left the castle both excited and humbled. But what we didn’t realize was that we had missed something at the Wartburg—something very important. We had missed the castle room known as the “Elizabeth Bower,” whose walls are covered with early 20th century mosaics that depict the life of Saint Elizabeth. Three hundred years before Luther, Princess Elizabeth of Hungary had made her own distinctive mark on the Wartburg. No, she hadn’t tried to reform her Church. And no, she hadn’t translated the Scriptures. She had simply lived out much of her adult life in the castle, practicing the teaching of Jesus to care for others, especially for the poor and needy.
Her interest in following Jesus and caring for the poor and needy began at about age 16, when she was introduced to some traveling Franciscan friars. Impressed by their simple life-style and by their reaching out to those in need, she began to follow their example. She gave many of her royal robes to help clothe the poor, and she began to dress very simply, a practice that was frowned upon by others at the Wartburg court. She also began to share the food of the castle with the poor who lived nearby, even at times carrying loaves of bread concealed under her cloak as she passed through the castle gates. On these forays she often saw many who were ill and had little or no medical care. To respond to this need, she had a hospital built by the Wartburg, and there she herself would often visit the sick. One of the mosaics in the Elizabeth Bower pictures her at the bedside of some of the suffering of Thuringia.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Elizabeth left the Wartburg because of a bitter dispute with her brother-in-law. She moved to Marburg, and there, too, she had a hospital built to help care for the needy. In 1231, at the age of 24, Elizabeth died. A short life, but so much good accomplished!
I’m sorry we missed the Elizabeth Bower and the Elizabeth story when we visited the Wartburg. But I’m so grateful to have met her now, as she provides such a strong and positive balance to the strong and powerful message of Martin Luther.
Martin lifts up for us the emphasis of Ephesians 2:8-9—“by grace you have been saved through faith.”
Elizabeth’s life lifts up for us the emphasis of Ephesians 2:10, reminding us that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
Luther in one part of the Wartburg. Elizabeth in another. A perfect balance. Ephesians 2:8-10 writ large across the length of the mighty fortress that still stands strong today.
A Mighty Fortress indeed! Would that all our lives, and all our churches, might mirror the powerful message inscribed across the massive walls of the Wartburg.