Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let's Bury Reformation Sunday

Observing Reformation Sunday as a special day in the church year is spiritually dangerous. It probably always has been. It used to be, although seldom is today, an opportunity to remonstrate Roman Catholicism for all its many failings, then congratulate ourselves for being of the line and lineage of that holy and blessed man, Martin Luther. More recently, it seems to be an opportunity to romantically re-enact past glories, much like a renaissance fair and other festive finery. It is an exercise in nostalgia. And a chance to wear red, though this too is confusing, for red is the liturgical color for the Holy Spirit, and it's hard to fathom how locking the Reformation in as the other day other than Pentecost to celebrate the Spirit is wise and good.

Reformation Sunday need not be an exercise in nostalgia, but its particular focus on just one moment in the long history of Christianity makes it suspect. If we celebrated an entire year, fifty-two Sundays, with each Sunday celebrating a development in the history of the Christian faith, with the Reformation situated within that larger context, it might work. As it stands, Reformation Sunday is the only Sunday of the entire church year that commemorates a moment in the history of Christianity rather than a moment in the narrative of Scripture itself. It is elevated and idealized precisely because it is so unique. This needs to stop.

I'm reminded of the three months I spent in Germany some years ago on a stipend from the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland. I had gone to study German and interview pastors and professors, asking this question, "What is your impression of the impact of the Reformation on the practice of the German church today?" The most frequent response I received went something like this, "I'm not sure we really think about this anymore. So much has happened since then. I am more influenced by Schleiermacher, or Barth, or the pietist movement, or..." 

Somehow in the North American Lutheran church context we have elevated this Reformation Sunday thing above all reason. My organist, Bob Mueller, recently pointed out to me that, where Johann Sebastian Bach wrote dozens of pieces for Pentecost and other festival days, he only ever got around to writing one piece of music for Reformation Sunday. Yes, it was observed during his time. But Bach, one of our great Lutheran theologians (and the fifth evangelist) did not think it warranted much attention. Neither should we.

In fact, I think Reformation Sunday warrants none of our attention at all, and should be removed from the church liturgical calendar, especially in this moment when we are so at risk of ghettoizing ourselves as Lutherans and falling back on past glories. After all, our slogan is not "designate one Sunday every year as Reformation Sunday," but rather ecclesia semper reformanda est. But Luther didn't say that. The Dutch did. 

[First published on October 26th, 2011]


  1. Bach wrote a few cantatas for Reformation Sunday:

    The third is for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, but clearly has the Reformation in mind.

    The reason red is the color for Reformation is because it is a festival of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther is the angel of Rev. 14, having the everlasting Gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth, as Bugenhagen first preached at Luther's Beerdigung.

    The celebration of the Reformation (which I would rather have on June 25) is extremely salutary. It is an entire festival dedicated to the doctrine of justification, the article on which the Church stands or falls, and stands as a constant exhortation that we fight for this doctrine with all our hearts and, by the Spirit's power, lay down our lives in service for it to join the martyrs if necessary.

    I don't understand what Germany's rejection of the Gospel/Reformation has to do with anything. Didn't Luther prophesy this very thing? Maybe this was why all the Lutherans of Concordia in the 16th Century commonly referred to him as "our prophet."

    While we confess the continuation of the Church even during the Babylonian Captivity, we can also, and should also sing that hymn which was taken out of our hymnals:

    1 O God, our Lord,
    Your holy word
    Was long a hidden treasure
    Till to its place
    It was by grace
    Restored in fullest measure.
    For this today
    Our thanks we say
    And gladly glorify You.
    Your mercy show
    And grace bestow
    On all who still deny You.

    2 Salvation true
    By faith in You,
    That is Your Gospel's preaching,
    The heart and core
    Of Bible lore
    In all its sacred teaching.
    In Christ we must
    Put all our trust,
    Not in our deeds or labor;
    With conscience pure
    And heart secure
    Love You, Lord, and our neighbor.

    3 Lord, You alone
    This work have done
    By Your free grace and favor.
    All who believe
    Will grace receive
    Through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
    And though the foe
    Would overthrow
    Your Word with grim endeavor,
    What plan he tries,
    It always dies;
    Your Word will stand forever.

    4 You are my Lord,
    And by Your Word
    Death holds no dreadful terrors;
    Your precious blood,
    My highest good,
    Has blotted out my errors.
    My thanks to You!
    Your Word is true,
    You keep Your promise ever.
    While here I live,
    Your grace You give
    And heaven's bliss forever.

    Also, Reformation Day celebrates a Biblical saint, Martin Luther (Rev. 14), who, although not a martyr, yet his teaching vindicates every martyr who shed his blood for Christ and his Church.

  2. Those are some pretty extensive and convincing counter-arguments, although they tend to elevate Martin Luther and his place in Revelation above what I would grant. Thanks for the response.