Bringing an Old Celebration to New Life
by Hal | October 29th, 2011
Are you as surprised as we were to find out that Reformation Day has been celebrated as a holiday in the church since at least 1567? We were delighted to find out that rather than sanitizing a holiday that celebrated death, our enemy, we could enjoy a holiday to remember true heroism — a man who faced death and thereby opened the door for many to find life!
Martin Luther was a young German law student when he underwent a remarkable religious conversion. Taking a bolt of lightning as a warning from God, he left the university and entered the Augustinian order as a monk. From there, his restless search for peace with God led him to the Bible, then a doctorate in theology, then a teaching position with the tiny University of Wittenberg in German Saxony.
Attempting to address certain abuses in the medieval Catholic Church, the young Dr. Luther posted a challenge to other scholars to debate a number of practices he questioned. On October 31, 1517, he nailed the notice to the door of the university church, a common practice itself since the broad heavy doors were routinely used as bulletin boards. He chose the Eve of All Saint’s Day, or All Hallow’s Eve, to post the theses because that was a festival day which would see the church full of the scholars he wanted to discuss these things with. The list of propositions known as “The 95 Theses” lit a firestorm of controversy that quickly spread across Germany and central Europe. Luther had attracted the attention not only of academics and churchmen like himself, but the wrath of Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, as well!
Called before the Imperial Diet at the town of Worms*, Luther was challenged to withdraw his proposals and repudiate his writings. In the front of everybody’s mind was the memory that the Czech reformer, Jan Hus, had made many of the same propositions decades earlier — and was burned at the stake in consequence.
Luther’s response, after begging a recess to consider the Emperor’s demand, followed a sleepless night of anxious prayer. When called for his answer the next dawn, Luther replied:
Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
Knowing what had happened to others who raised the issues he had, Luther stared death in the face and stood on the word of God – never mind Pope or Emperor. In fact, he was declared outlaw by the Emporor and faced:
Confiscation and loss of body and belongings and all goods, fixed and movable, half of which will go to the Lord, and the other half to the accusers and denouncers. With other punishments as given more fully in the present edict and mandate.
Notice loss of body — that’s called martyrdom — that’s what he faced. Among other things. What an incredible, gutsy thing to do. It’s one of our favorite events in history.
What was Luther’s philosophy that put him in such conflict with the Church of the day? One way to summarize it is called the Five Solas:
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Solus Christus – Christ Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Soli Deo Gloria – The Glory of God Alone
All of that flowed out of Luther’s realization of the meaning of “the just shall live by faith.”
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
Here at the Youngs’, we make a big deal out of Reformation Day (October 31). It’s a great time to teach our children the heroism of the fathers of our faith as well as our sure foundation: salvation by grace through faith in the substitionary death of the God-man Jesus Christ. That means that as God made flesh, He was infinite in nature and had no sins of his own to die for, so could die for the sins of all his people, taking the death they deserved on Himself. What a rich truth!
On Reformation Day, we eat German, usually bratwurst, sauerkraut and hot German potato salad, then troop into the den to watch Martin Luther, a terrific B&W documentary made in 1954 and starring Niall MacGinnis as the reformer. The movie was filmed at the actual location of some events, and they did a good job finding actors who actually looked like Luther, Charles, and Pope Leo. And the scene at Worms is classic!
(The DVD is available from several places, but and is now available streaming from Netflix.)
During breaks we love to sing hymns of the Reformation like A Mighty Fortress is Our God, written by Martin Luther, Now Thank We All Our God, written by a Lutheran pastor during the Thirty Years War (one of the Reformation Wars) after a dreadful seige that saw him officiating at 50 funerals a day, and We Gather Together, written after a victory in the battle between the Reformed population of the Netherlands and the might of Spain, whose General Alva slew men women and children alike as heretics, unworthy of keeping his word towards.
And we do have a concession to the candy-intensive holiday … we play “Pin the Theses on the Wittenberg Door.” We draw big fancy wooden doors on brown paper with a different treat written on each panel. We use Post-it(TM) notes for the Theses. Everybody wins, which the boys don’t mind as long as they get lots of candy!
Our friends are getting in to the spirit of things, too. One year friends of ours came in the middle of the night and stuck a copy of the Theses on our door with a bag of candy and a sign, “You’ve been nailed!”
Instead of justifying Christians participating in a holiday that is in no wise holy, why not celebrate a real Christian holiday this year?
*I’ve always loved thinking about “The Diet of Worms,” but to be fair, it’s pronounced “Vorms” in German.