We enter the month of November on the heels of the Reformation (31 October), and it’s not long after that we’ll also remember Dr. Luther’s birthday (10 November); so it seems only natural for us to focus on our Lutheran history and identity this month. And given that it’s no longer popular in these grey and latter days to remember and give thanks for the Reformation, it is all the more important for us to keep that important chapter in the Church’s history alive in our observances.
There was a reason, though, that the Reformation began when it did, on “Halloween” (that is, on the Eve of All Saints or “All Hallows”). Luther posted his Ninety–Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church, because he knew that Christians would be gathering there for Mass that evening and the next morning. And there was certainly no intention on his part that the Feast of All Saints should be superseded or replaced by anything like the “Reformation.”
Those who object to the celebration of the Reformation have a valid complaint, if and when that celebration becomes an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back with one hand, while bashing others on the head with a big stick in the other hand. Sadly, it is true that “Reformation Day” has sometimes become an occasion for criticizing the Roman Church and praising ourselves for not being “too Catholic” (sic). But Dr. Luther would surely call us to repentance for such an attitude.
We know that Luther — and the Confession that bears his name — did not drop down out of heaven. Martin Luther was a Christian because he was baptized and reared within the Roman Catholic Church, in which he also heard and learned to know the Holy Gospel, notwithstanding the significant errors that had developed and increased over the course of time. Luther never did despise his fathers in Christ and the countless saints who had gone before him in the faith, who were likewise baptized and reared within the Roman Church. His one desire — out of love for Christ Jesus and His Church — was for a reformation of the Roman Church on the basis of her own authentic confession and holy faith. Everything she needed was already there: the treasures of the Holy Scriptures, the Gospel of Christ Jesus, the waters and the Word of Holy Baptism, the practice of Confession and Holy Absolution, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Office of the Holy Ministry, and the ancient services and prayers of the Church. But what the Church needed was a new appreciation and better understanding of those very gifts and graces of God in Christ Jesus.
The Church in our own day still needs such an appreciation and understanding of the Gifts Christ freely gives, and that is true for all of us, as well. There is ever the danger of falling into the same trap as the Church of the Middle Ages — supposing that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in His Means of Grace is somehow not enough, and that we must supplement His work with works of our own, or programs, or excitement, or creativity, or money, or what have you. Worst of all is when the genuine treasures of the One, Holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church are despised as “too Catholic” (sic), and thus exchanged for the marketing techniques of the temporal world.
To assist us in resisting such temptations, it is most appropriate that we not try to choose between Reformation Day and the Feast of All Saints, as though these two observances were opposed to each other, but that we should mark and celebrate both, the one as a portion of the other.
To celebrate the Reformation properly is to understand the work of Martin Luther and the events of the Sixteenth Century as a significant contribution to the history of the Church on earth. Dr. Luther was a Pastor and Professor of that Church, and it was precisely as such that he taught and preached the Gospel of Christ — to and for the Church. So also do our Lutheran Confessions, the Augsburg Confession in particular, make plain and explicit our connection to the church catholic of all times and places. We confess the same thing each week in the Church’s Creeds. And the Feast of All Saints also belongs to this “blest Communion, Fellowship divine” (LSB 677, st. 4).
In remembering and commemorating the saints who have gone before us, we confess our unity in Christ Jesus with all those who live by faith in Him, both here and now and hereafter in eternity. It is not Christian but pagan to assume that those who have died are simply “dead and gone,” as though they no longer existed. Our Lord teaches otherwise, and so do we also believe, teach, and confess. When we remember the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostles and Martyrs of the New Testament, and the faithful Pastors and Saints of the early church, we do so as those who share a living connection with those very people in the one Body of Christ. And so do we remember Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformers, not out of nostalgia for a fading past, but rejoicing in the fellowship that we share with all those who live forever with the Lord.