The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: A Sobering Celebration

500 years ago this day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Augustinian friar, District Vicar of the Reform Congregation of Augustinian Hermits in Meissen and Thuringia, Doctor of Sacred Theology and lecturer on Holy Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, preacher, priest, and pastor, nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church, the Church of All Saints, in Wittenberg. The purpose of the Theses was to engender debate and, it was to be hoped, to bring about genuine reform of the preaching of indulgences. Luther thus entered into a grand tradition of monastics who called their Mother Church to repentance, striving to bring her into conformity with her own laws and with the Law of God. But in the judgment of Rome, Luther’s criticism went too far. Instead of receiving his correction or allowing his teaching to continue as a school of thought within the Roman fold, Luther’s enemies demanded that he simply recant, with no argument, no debate, and certainly no correction of abuses. This Luther could not do for fear of offending the God whose Scriptures he was sworn to teach. Thus Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and severed from the fellowship of Rome all who, like Luther, upheld the teachings of the Scriptures and Church Fathers that Luther had once again brought to light. The Lutheran Church, as a consciously distinct entity within broader Christendom, was born.

I find this sobering not because of the division that Pope Leo X and his adherents wrought, nor because I lament the fact that the Reformation had to happen. It is sobering because, as much as we might be drawing attention to the significance of this anniversary, our own sense of celebration and thanksgiving pales utterly in comparison with that of past generations.

Already in Luther’s lifetime the significance of October 31st, 1517, was acknowledged and commemorated. Robin Leaver records in his recent book The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg the signature of a letter written by Luther to Nicolas Amsdorf, dated October 31st, 1527: “Written at Wittenberg on the Day of All Saints [which liturgically begins on the evening of October 31st], in the tenth year after the indulgences had been trampled underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking at this hour.” Later generations would do far more than drink in memory of the posting of the 95 Theses. At the centenary in 1617, Reformation Day was celebrated as a major feast, on the order of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The celebration thus began with Vespers on October 30th, continued with Mass and Vespers on October 31st and November 1st, and finally concluded with Mass on November 2nd. The best talent that the world at that time had to offer was commissioned to produce and perform elaborate and majestic settings of the Mass itself, psalms, and Lutheran hymns. The celebrations were no less widespread and jubilant a century later, when the bicentenary of 1717 was observed with preaching, prayer, and praise throughout Germany, once again as a three-day feast. The following video gives an idea of the passion that went into such celebrations.

The hymns sung at these Reformation celebrations possess such fire, such vigor! There are the great hymns of Luther himself: “Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein” (Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice), the joyous hymn of praise; “Der du bist drei in Einigkeit” (Thou What Art Three in Unity), translated from the ancient Vesper hymn; “Wir glauben all an einen Gott” (We All Believe in One True God), Luther’s Creed, and “Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (Lord God, Thy Praise We Sing), his Te Deum; the Psalms “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), “Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (Were God Not with Us at This Time), “Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein” (May God Bestow on Us His Grace), and “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold), the latter two of which were most properly considered “battle hymns of the Reformation”; and, of course, “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word), with its strong words “against the Pope and the Turks, the two arch-foes of Christ and His holy Church.” Then there are the hymns by others: “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (Salvation unto Us Has Come), by Paul Speratus; “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (My Soul, Now Bless Thy Maker), by Johann Gramann; “O Herre Gott, dein Göttlich Wort” (O God, Our Lord, Thy Holy Word, not available here due to copyright issues, but found in TLH as No. 266), the 1527 Reformation celebration hymn. The treasures of Lutheran hymnody new and old were certainly wisely brought forth to the glory of God.

Where are we now? Yes, we have festivals. We publish books, produce films, and hold extra services. But as I consider my own community, I am struck at how our celebration of this most significant occasion is proceeding more or less under the radar. We live in a culture that feels itself virtually unaffected by the Reformation, by the work that cost Luther and so many of his followers so dear. The apathy, of course, extends far beyond Reformation Day. How many of our churches celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost for three days each with lavish services morning and evening, joyously attended by the entire community?

The old prayer for the Festival of the Reformation includes the acknowledgment and confession, “in sincere repentance, that by our manifold sins, ingratitude, indifference, and unbelief we have, indeed, deserved that Thou mightest justly hide Thy face from us and visit us with a famine of Thy Word.” Heaven forbid. “But we beseech Thee, O Lord, deal with us, not after our sins, but according to Thine infinite compassion. Let not the gates of hell prevail against Thy Church.”

May the 1000th Jubilee of the Reformation, October 31st, 2517, if Our Lord should tarry so long, find a Church ready to rival her fathers in fervor and zeal, faith and love, praise and adoration.

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