CHICAGO (RNS) — As churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the presiding bishop of the country’s largest Lutheran denomination began offering weekly video messages from her home.
But viewers were captivated by more than her words of comfort or calls for prayer and action to address issues like systemic racism: On the wall behind her was a neon sign in the shape of what’s called the “Luther rose” — a coat of arms Martin Luther designed more than 500 years ago for the Protestant Reformation he ignited.
Almost immediately, the sign became a focus that generated nearly as many comments from those tuning in as Eaton's messages.
On Friday (Aug. 7), after a slight delay for repairs, Eaton ceremoniously lit the neon Luther rose for the first time.
The lighting was accompanied by the buzz of neon and a trumpet blast from Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress” — the version from the opening of the popular 1960’s Lutheran children’s series “Davey and Goliath,” which also prominently featured the Lutheran symbol.
“This has been a very stressful time,” Eaton told Religion News Service.
“I think by now almost all of us either knows somebody who's been infected or might even know someone who died (of COVID-19) … and now it's just this long haul. I think it just gets so heavy, and this rose is bright. It’s bright colors, so that's fun about it, and then people, I think, feel connected by sharing about it.”
The presiding bishop explained that the Luther rose includes a black cross inside a red heart — a reminder of the Lutheran belief that "we're justified by grace through faith," she said — on a white rose, symbolizing hope. It is circled by blue and gold, a symbol of the "eternal joy that we have in heaven," she said.
The sign was a gift from Eaton’s husband, an Episcopal priest and neon sign enthusiast. He had commissioned it for her birthday several years ago, she said.
Jeffrey Roberts, the ELCA’s social media manager, said viewers first noticed the neon sign in Eaton’s weekly messages posted to Facebook in early April.
Some asked where they could get a neon Luther rose of their own. Others joked about starting an Order of the Neon Luther Rose.
“I had no idea this (neon Luther rose) would be close to viral,” Eaton tweeted in June. The tweet received hundreds of likes, quickly becoming one of her most popular posts of all time, according to Roberts.
Many asked the presiding bishop to turn on the sign during her messages. But somewhere in the undetermined past it had stopped working.
Earlier this summer, Eaton announced she was having the sign repaired.
One Twitter user called it the “(neon)light at the end of the tunnel.”
It’s not the first lighthearted post Eaton has shared on social media since the pandemic arrived in the United States and churches and other businesses closed to try to slow the spread of the virus.
The ELCA also shared a duet of “Jesus Loves Me” between Eaton and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church. Eaton said that video was inspired by National Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, who has been posting videos singing the hymn of the day on social media.
And Eaton posted a selfie with a statue of Luther in matching face masks, encouraging followers, “Be like Martin Luther - wear a mask.”