Today is a feast day for St. Elizabeth of Hungary. I spoke about her in one of the earliest homilies I gave at the parish I would come to serve as a deacon. It was for a Wednesday night service. I found the notes from 2003 still safe on my computer:
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St. Elizabeth of Hungary, born in 1207, was the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary.
When she was four, her father arranged a political marriage giving her to the eldest son of Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia. So she was sent off to to live with the royals at the new Wartburg Castle overlooking Eisenach and Marburg. (The castle was about 150 years old.)
Although the court life was resplendent with music and poetry and art, young Elizabeth always demonstrated a very marked piety and spirituality. Because she seemed so out of step with the frivolous diversions of court society, she was subject to scorn and mockery by her new companions.
When she was nine years old, the boy who was to be her husband, died. The marriage arrangements were quickly redrawn to promise her to the next eldest, a son named Ludwig. Ludwig became very devoted to Elizabeth, and became her protector against the ill-treatment others had given her. Ludwig was 17 years old when his father died and he took over the court as Ludwig IV. Four years later, when he was 21, the marriage with Elizabeth was formalized. She was just 14 years old. And by all reports they had a very happy marriage. (So one mark of this saint is she was a good wife!)
With her new position as princess, Elizabeth was able to begin to come down from the castle on top of the mountain, and see the condition of the people living down below. It stirred her heart and she began to extend help to the poor and needy. When Ludwig and Elizabeth had been married five years, a severe famine and widespread disease came to the region. Ludwig was on political travels elsewhere, so Elizabeth took charge of providing relief, to the point of giving away the state robes and jewels, to the suffering people of the region! She also built a hospital at the foot of the mountain, and went there each day to personally help care for the sick. The records indicate she was helping to feed and care for more than 900 people each day. This charitable work was not popular with the court attendants, but when Ludwig returned home he immediately gave his blessing to all that Elizabeth had done in his name while he was away.
The following year, Ludwig was appointed to take part in one of the Crusades. Unfortunately he died soon after leaving Elizabeth’s side for this trip. She was 20 years old. Ludwig’s family was not kind to her and she was kicked out of the castle with her three children.
At about this time, followers of St. Francis of Assisi were beginning to show up and share his ideals among the German people. Elizabeth joined with them and helped them establish a monastery in the city of Eisenach. Elizabeth wanted to give up all her wealth and take a vow of poverty, but her spiritual director would not allow her to do that. So instead she used her money to continue to help the poor and to build another hospital to be run by the Franciscans. She spent the rest of her life tirelessly working with the sick. When she died on this day in the year 1231, she was 24 years old.
Soon after her death there began to be reports of miraculous healings experienced by those visiting her grave site at the Franciscan hospital. Pope Gregory IX began the processing of canonization, and she was formally recognized as a saint in ceremonies held on Pentecost Sunday, in the year 1235, four years after her death. In the fall of that year a cornerstone was laid for a Gothic church in her honor at Marburg. The church was finally finished 70 years later with the completion of its twin spires and stands to this day.
St. Elizabeth has been called the greatest woman of the German middle ages.
And there is a curious story told about her that I initially wanted to dismiss as fanciful exaggeration by her simple followers. The story is this.
One evening, Elizabeth was trying to leave Wartburg castle quietly and secretly, taking food on an errand of mercy somewhere. She accidentally came upon her husband Ludwig, who naturally wanted to know what she was doing up at such a late hour. The story says that he asked what she was hiding in her cloak. It was a loaf of bread, but when Elizabeth pulled it out to show to her husband, it had been turned into a bouquet of roses.
I don’t know why Ludwig would have thought that any less strange than if he had found the bread. I can see praising Elizabeth for sharing bread, but why would God have her share roses? I thought, the signs and wonders that Jesus did were always practical, not charming. Then I remember his first miracle, at the wedding at Cana.
And I also began to think about what else the Lord brought to pass later in the city where St. Elizabeth had lived.
Three hundred years after Elizabeth had walked the streets of that city, feeding bread to the poor, Martin Luther escaped in exile to Wartburg Castle. During the time he was there, from 1521 to 1522, he translated the New Testament into German, and thus provided the Word of Life for the common people of his land. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God…
Another 150 years after that there was a baby born to a city musician who grew up to be the most influential composer of church music, or music itself, in history. His name was Johann Sebastian Bach. It occurs to me that music is a gift from God that pleases our sense of hearing, much like beautiful roses and other lilies of the field are pleasing to our senses of sight and smell.
So perhaps it is fitting that the story of Elizabeth that comes down to us depicts her sharing gifts the Lord has given for our necessity as well as for our delight, for He has surely provided them all.
I see one other thing in the life of St. Elizabeth that I think we could mark, and try to imitate, as we approach the season of Advent. Elizabeth was born of royal blood, brought up with all the comforts of a castle. But rather than live a life of secluded comfort, and following the example of her Savior, she came down from her home on high, to the walk among the stable hands and taxpayers, to pour out her gifts, and to lay down her life for their sake. Even as a princess, she had the same opportunity we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow in the steps of Jesus.