This post has been delayed by a ridiculously busy business and personal life. I hope the lack of timeliness does not render its sentiments moot.
I offer here a painful reassessment of my long-held affection for the Feast of Reformation Day. Despite my tendencies to more “traditional” traditions of the faith (such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy), I do not especially regret being a Lutheran. In fact, there are times when I am dang proud to be born, baptized, confirmed, and ordained a Lutheran. But I was taught (by Lutheran theologians) to understand Lutheranism through a particular prism, and that understanding tempers my chauvinism. That understanding grounds what I say here.
We Lutherans recently celebrated the Day of Reformation – a time to wax eloquently about what a wonderful thing the Reformation was, with its focus on “justification by faith” (never mind the unfortunate consequences that have followed from that formulation which is slightly different from the biblical “justification by grace through faith”) and on the eternal beneficence of Martin Luther’s contribution to the life of faith. I concluded this year that I am convinced that a liturgical reformation day is a bad idea – and I am ready to abandon this “red day” in our denomination’s calendar in favor either of no special day or of some feast that we can share with other Christians.
Now let me say, in advance, that my home congregation (Mount Olive, Minneapolis) is relatively responsible in its celebration in what is essentially a parochially protestant (note the lower-case “p”) festival. (Even with approval of the Joint Declaration on Justification, the Vatican’s liturgical commission has not yet added “Reformation Day” to the calendar.) We try mightily to have a non-Lutheran (preferably, Roman Catholic) preacher (and this year, resonant of Lutheran history perhaps, a Roman Catholic nun preached a simply fabulous sermon that took as its texts the scripture readings and not a particular event in church history). We also try to connect the import of the reformation to the wider issues of life in the Christian Church. Nevertheless, we followed what has become a little too common practice among Lutheran congregations in celebrating a “Deutsche Messe” – i.e., a “German” mass in which hymns (many composed by Luther himself) substitute for the ordinary of the mass. Details are available in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) for anyone who is not acquainted with this little business.
I was surprised, given my affection for many of the hymns that substitute for components of the mass, that for the first time in my adult life I was bored and offended by the substitutions to the ordinary of the mass (i.e., of those “regular” components of the structure of the mass). I found them showy, tedious, tendentious, and no longer appropriate. I ought not to have been surprised by my reaction, for I am an “evangelical catholic” – i.e., a Christian who tries to bring together the absolutely necessary “evangelical” insights into the grace of God in life of faith and the equally absolute necessity of binding oneself as a Christian to the 2000-year witness of the teaching and “tradition” of the Church catholic. But up to now, I have thrown myself into the celebration of “Reformation Sunday” with all the zeal of one trained to sing (after all: most of the so-called “thrust” of the Deutsche messe was to get people to sing). The tunes are energizing and quite satisfying to sing, both for voice-box and for soul.
But this year I was struck by what a chauvinistic thing this celebration of “Reformation Sunday” is: It proclaims (only by implication, of course) what a good thing it was that Luther helped split the Western Church (the “catholic” church had been split centuries earlier). We sing Luther hymns to bump inherited texts of the mass to demonstrate that no old “tradition” or “magisterium” or whatever would bind us. We make our own way, by God (uttered with the appropriate tone of reverence). “A Mighty Fortress” reminds us that the anti-christic Pope may still be lurking outside our doors. It was all just too parochial.
I repeat: None of this was the “text.” Nor is this what underlay the planning by our worship leaders (pastor and cantor). I suspect that there are plenty for whom that is the subtext. But I contend that, regardless of the intentions or interpretations of those who plan and lead such celebrations, the phenomenon of a “Reformation” Sunday proclaims just such a celebration of division in the Church and fosters a continuing schism that is an offense to God.
My pastor disputes my “deconstruction” of Reformation Sunday. For him, it is the Lutheran way of celebrating our “distinctive” contribution to the fullness of the Church’s life. For him, Luther’s hymns and perspective are worth raising up.
But I think he raises two different points. I don’t deny the value of Luther’s witness. But I do not celebrate the on-going value of the schism he provoked in the Church. And to substitute Luther’s – or even Bach’s – hymns for the jointly-held treasure of the Church’s liturgy is to suggest that our distinctiveness is out of the mainstream of the Church’s traditions. (It is, if nothing else, disrespect for the deposit of the liturgy – something that the churches are slowing learning to share.)
It is time that the Lutheran Church recover its noble identity: We are an “evangelical” movement within the wider “catholic” church; we are not meant to be a separate “denomination.” We Lutherans, as Lutherans (“qua Lutherans,” as Walter Prausnitz, professor of English at Concordia College Moorhead, taught me to say) exist only to remind the Church of the importance of maintaining “justification by grace through faith” as an essential element of the Church’s witness (but note: not as the only element of that witness nor as the content of that witness). We exist only until the entire Church recognizes as a fundamental doctrine that in all preaching and teaching, we must make clear that God’s grace precedes, pre-empts, and precludes any human effort to reconcile God and humanity. The Reformation was not intended to establish a “new” church or even to separate from the “catholic” church; its intent was to remain as a lobbying movement within the Church. We are “the true church,” but that only means that we maintain our relationships with the church in Rome and in Constantinople and in Geneva and in Cape Town. We have forgotten that role, that place, that goal, that identity; it’s time to return to it.
All this means that, far from taking pride in the schism occasioned by Br. Martin’s preaching (as necessary as that split may have been in its day), we repent of it and seek to reunify the Church. We must not be self-satisfied as “Lutherans.” Instead, we must be perennially dissatisfied that the Church is divided, that the credibility of the gospel is impeached by its being proclaimed in seemingly contradictory tongues, that Christians find excuses to denounce and ex-communicate each other (on grounds that are facially farcical) in order to claim the privilege to declare the grounds for reconciliation of the Church. (Lamentably, that is most certainly not the perspective a many seminary-trained leaders of the Lutheran Churches.)
It’s time to stop observing the feast of the Reformation – at least in its current configuration, and certainly its observance as the “Deutsche Messe.” That is a step that Lutherans can take to recognize the importance of acting out our identity as Christians. It would be a first, small step (following the mutual recognition by Lutherans – to the extent that we can be said to speak with one voice – and Roman Catholics of the joint declaration on justification) toward reconciliation and reunion with the Church of Rome (with hopes that the designation will soon be the “Church of Christ”).
Let’s try to be real about what it means to be Lutheran. We are a “confessing movement” WITHIN the Christian Church. We have for too long misunderstood ourselves as a separate “church,” but if we read the Augsburg Confession, we are not separate from the rest of the Church.
We may hope that the Church of Rome (and also that of Constantinople) will make similar moves to recognize our fraternity and to overcome parochial pride (which exists in abundance within those traditions, too). I personally hope and pray that such will be the case: I think it essential to their own views of themselves that they move in that direction. But that is not a condition that Lutherans should insist on or condition any activity on.
For now, it is incumbent on Lutherans who take seriously our identity and to end this display of self-aggrandizement which we call “Reformation Sunday.”