Here’s the Lutheran position on holy things: We don’t believe in them! Yet, we do have lots of them in our church, and are constantly looking for more. Sound like a contradiction? Please read on!
All Christians (along with Jews and Muslims) vehemently reject the notion that things or places can have any innate ‘holiness’ in the sense that they have supernatural power in and of themselves. Only God, the creator of all things is to be worshipped and only His power is to be sought; never the things He created – that’s idolatry!
However, holy things and places are actually mentioned a lot in the Bible. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he said “Take off your sandals for the place you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5). When God instructed the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant, He designated it as a holy object that could not be touched or viewed, and the special room in which it was kept, partitioned off by a heavy curtain, was called the “Holy of Holies.” There are actually hundreds of references to holy things in the Old Testament. So when we flatly say that Lutherans don’t believe in them, there’s clearly something more involved!
The Protestant aversion to the idea of ‘holy objects’ is a rejection of practices that were common in the Catholic Church during Medieval times. Feeding on widespread superstition, the church promoted the miraculous powers of ‘holy relics’ and shrines that were associated with Biblical figures and other ‘saints.’ People would travel long distances and pay substantial amounts of money to have contact with such objects and places to receive the benefit of their special powers. This was one of the abuses that Martin Luther set out to reform. Veneration of saints, their shrines and relics, is still a practice we object to.
When the Bible speaks of holy things/places it is always because of their special relationship to God, who is the only intrinsically holy entity in the universe – the source of all holiness. Thus, the ground on which Moses was standing was holy because God was present there, and the Holy of Holies because it was also a place dedicated to God. However, the designation as ‘holy’ in such instances was more like a warning (CAUTION: Holy Place!) to prevent people from profaning God’s presence. In other words, ‘holy’ signaled a setting apart and distancing from the ordinary affairs of humans.
That all changed with the birth of Jesus when God made Himself present to humanity as a man who walked among us (John 1:14). This new relationship was dramatically symbolized when the temple curtain was torn apart at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross (Matthew 27:51) so that now the “Holy of Holies” was accessible. Through the sacrifice of Jesus the “keep away” warning of holiness became an invitation to experience God and His holiness personally.
Consequently, other than historical references to Old Testament practices, the New Testament no longer speaks of holy objects – with one huge exception: Holy People!
Actually, the principle of what makes something holy didn’t change in the slightest between the Old and New Testaments: something becomes holy when it is set aside for God’s use. And that’s precisely why we say that our church is full of ‘holy things’ – the people in the pews who are set apart for God’s service and in whom God’s Holy Spirit resides. No, we are certainly not holy in the sense of anything that we bring to God or achieve by our own efforts, but only by the gracious infusion of God’s own holiness won for us by Jesus’ death on the cross – and that’s the Good News we want everyone to share in with us!
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you might declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV)