On the Eve of All Saints, Day, October 31, 1517, Augustinian Father Doctor Martin Luther, professor of Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, Germany posted an invitation to debate on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. The invitation to debate contained ninety-five points, or theses, concerning the sale of indulgences. Luther chose this date for posting his theses because the coming holyday would bring many of the community to services, ensuring that his statements would receive wide exposure.
In the preceding months Albert, Archbishop of Mainz had authorized Dominican Friar Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences (a paper declaring that the deceased person for whom it had been purchased had received total forgiveness of sins and therefore a release from Purgatory) in order to finance the construction of St. Peter,s basilica. Tetzel is alleged to have declared “as soon as the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from Purgatory springs.
At the same time, Luther had been engaged in intensive study of the scriptures in search of his own spiritual peace. He found tremendous relief in “the just shall live by faith. This principle of justification by faith became the positive argument underlying the ninety-five theses.
Because the theses were a direct challenge to the Papacy–and to the economic system enriching the Papal treasury–the reaction was swift and severe. The Pope initiated proceedings to have Luther tried for heresy; proceedings that very likely would have led to his execution. Luther–with the support of the Wittenberg faculty–appealed to elector Frederick III of Saxony for protection.
Although Luther did not intend to begin a separate Church, such was the unavoidable consequence of his challenge. By 1530 Germany was divided between communities loyal to the Pope and those following the reforms initiated by Luther.
For many years Reformation Day was celebrated in Lutheran congregations as a sort of rebirth of the Church. In more recent years ecumenical progress has caused some to be embarrassed by the celebration of the first schism of Western Christianity. The alternative title “Reformationi/Reconciliation Day has been proposed although that has not been widely adopted.
On Reformation Day 1999, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church was publicly signed in Wittenberg. “Together we declare: by faith alone is the centerpiece of this expression of ecumenical convergence.
The appointed lessons for the day (often transferred by Lutherans to the preceding Sunday) point not only to the historical situation but also to the Church,s constant need for ongoing renewal. Jeremiah 31:31-34 tells of the coming New Covenant where God will write His law on every human heart. Romans 3:19-28 declares the central tenet of the Reformation “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.. John 8:31-36 enjoins us to be constant in the Word in order to be freed by the One who is Truth.
And since the law is not yet perfectly inscribed on every heart and all are not yet fully devoted to the Word, the task of Reformation is not yet complete. Ecclesia semper Reformata–the Church is always reforming.
The liturgical color of the day is red, which represents the Holy Spirit and the Martyrs of the Christian Church. Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God is traditionally sung on this day.
A Mighty Fortress is our God
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
Compiled from The Daily Office for Oct. 31 and Wikipedia