Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Musings on "Reformation Sunday"

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.”


Daniel S. said...

Ironically Dwight, to me, your argument proved the point why we indeed need to maintain a liturgical "Reformation Day." Imagine if you woke up in a new liturgical world tomorrow (A Renewing Worship world, perhaps?) that had erased the festival from the calendar. The Church year would wind down in an uninterrupted eschatalogical slide to Christ the King Sunday and in to Advent, and no one ever had to be exhorted from the Gospel "If you continue in my word, will know the truth and the truth will set you free" on the Sunday nearest the 31st of October.
I argue that unless we set aside a date to face our history (warts and all), the points you made about lamenting the schism would NEVER be talked about in 98% of churches. The fact that you even brought this up speaks to the potential power of that day on the calendar - if only pastors had the interest and ability to do so.

"Reformation talk" needs to keep happening (just like every Reformation day sermon I've heard includes the phrase "we need to keep being a reforming church." Trite, yes. But correct). Reformation talk is a conversation that needs to take a cue from Luther himself and engage in not only self examination of our church and it's failings, but call to task our other brothers and sisters in the faith, urging them to an ever more faithful witness. Reformation day is about discovering and being faithful to the truth, and sometimes doing so results in a big mess (to put it lightly). But are we better for divorcing oursleves from Rome in the 16th century? Yes. (I worked for Rome for a year and a half. The decision still looks good to me.) For example, my feelings about fellow Christians who voted for GWB just after the election elicited a visceral "this is war on the fundamentalists!" reaction from not only myself but other Christians as well. Because of this election, it is time for the "religious left" (silly term, but all I have) to rise up and call the "religious right" on the carpet. As one of my friends said, "Open up a can of Luther-whup-ass." (perhaps...)

We need to talk of reconciliation. We need to talk about healing divisions. We need to to talk about standing up for the truth. We need to talk about calling others to faithful witness. I feel we need to hear that in our church year (indeed, every Sunday!). But for the vast majority of Lutherans, if not on the Sunday nearest the 31st of October, when?

Now, as for the critique of the Deutsche Messe (you're on thin ice here, pal!), as a musician, and one of the people responsible for teaching children our tradition, I see the DM as the core, the center of what it is to understand our heritage. (Just as my Episcopalian colleague down the street is pulling out his hair trying to teach anglican chant to his kids.) At my church I place more importance on learning and memorizing parts of the DM than even Richard Hillert's "Setting One." Historically, the DM opened up the door to a whole lot of things musically and liturgically. If the DM had not happened, what would our worship look like today? In an age when mass settings come and go with the wind, it is good to know that this, our first setting (I know, Formula Missae was first), is still there and still sung. Every good Lutheran should know it and if Reformation Day is when they choose to dust it off, so be it. Now if you have aesthetic problems with how the music was played, your church should have hired a different musician...


Dwight P. said...

I'll deal with that response in a while. But for now I want to post Sr. Shawn's sermon at Mount Olive on Reformation Sunday.

He is here:


Dwight P. said...

No, brother, you are on thin ice (Oh, that recalls me to good chats we had face-to-face when you were closer) if you see the Deutsche Messe as somehow the equivalent of or better than the traditional ordo divino. Paraphrase is never as good as the real thing. Good News for Modern Man is not scripture, regardless of how much it is used as such (any more than Clarence Jordan's delightful "Cotton Patch" versions are). While scriptural translations "come and go," what doesn't change is a general fundament of agreement on what the text says, in place since God's secretaries transformed Hebrew and Greek texts into Jacobean English. So with liturgical texts and orders.

Luther may be commended for putting his own "takes" to music to avoid requiring his people to know or learn Latin. As an interim measure, perhaps -- but I'm still not sure. TOday, virtually no one contests the vernacular (well, Cardinal Joseph may have his doubts, but so far I've seen nothing to overrule the Vatican II teaching), and we have reached almost a consensus on texts. That is mightily important -- especially from a Reformation point of view.

If we are true to our Reformation heritage and confess that we are a "movement" within the Church catholic (no necessary subjection, there, to Rome -- for the sake of argument), then we must work as hard as we can in those endeavors which manifest a unity which is partial and oft attacked. Among the items we might cite is a common translation of the divine liturgy. Those are the texts we must teach our children first. They are the ordo, the ordinary, the canon. We will be able to go from parish to parish, even tradition to tradition, with the fundamental grounding in the common liturgy.

That is not to say that Lutherans ought not to know all the hymnody of the DM. I love those pieces -- even though if I sang most of them before I came to Mount Olive, I don't remember it. Even at Sem, where we were more inclined to the Formula Missae but did the DM while I was on campus, we may have sung these pieces, but I don't remember them.

Surely, we ought to know and love them -- and break them out regularly, not just on one "chauvinistic" Sunday. By using them at other times, we commend them to the use of the whole Church, offering them from our best, not storing them for our own precious use. In addition, they are biblical, and they ought to be regularly employed in studies of the Bible. (We always do our best by the Bible when we sing it.)

And on that line, only a dang fool would not teach his children Anglican chant and Gregorian chant -- and MAYBE even call-and-response. Its all our heritage. The danger of denominationalism (which I think Reformation Sunday, not intentionally, promotes) is hoarding and narrowing.

I'm not sure whether I know what I'm talking about. But I know what I like. Sorry, I couldn't resist. This is a fine discussion, and you raise some excellent points.

I questions whether many pastors make the point on the Sunday before All Saints' that we must continue to be a reforming church -- and if they do, I bet most of them mean that we must continue to be a reformed (as opposed to "catholic") church. Sorry, but that's my read. And so it is precisely in the spirit of "ut unum sint" -- "that they may be one" -- that I raise these rebuttals.

Peace and love to you, brother. I've got to get Sister Dash in on this. She likely has some good insights -- probably on your "side."


Dwight P. said...

For the generally interested: Here is where to find Sr. Shawn's Reformation Sunday sermon:


Daniel S. said...

Excellent points. This is where our perspectives need to be delineated. I think we agree, but I'm trying to argue from a slightly different angle. One must seperate the music from the text for just a moment. "He who sings, prays twice," is pretty accurate (though not in a works-righteousness sense). People young and old remember tunes attached to the texts much more than the texts spoken and detached from music. (Your daughter and the Pater Noster for example.) My point is that the texts of the Ordinary are *of course* central, but we have no common tune with which to hang those translations on (especially now, not knowing WHAT will appear in a new hymnal and what will fade into the bowels of history). And even across the church catholic, we can't even agree on the same translations (despite the work of the "ecumenical" 1988 ELLC). Also, rumor has it that with the new sacramentary coming out from Rome (Catholic friends, is this true? I'm out of the loop on this.) that there may be a much broader re-working of the ordinary in English. (According to my source, the first ones were "hastily" put together after Vatican II and not entirely satisfying musically or authentically to the uppers in Rome. True? I don't know.) Anyway, can we as Lutherans at least agree that the DM *music* is important *enough* to warrent being known by ALL Lutherans? It indeed should be used more frequently (I agree with the not-just-on-Reformation-Day point). Also, we should be better at embracing our Formula Missae heritage as well, with the greater emphasis on the role of the choir and use of Latin, etc. I guess in the best of all worlds, my kids would know the words of the Latin mass just as well as the ELLC translation... (It's funny how I learned the ordinary in Latin - and other texts - in mostly non-church affiliated or secular musical groups. Who's keeping who's tradition alive?)

I think we need to embrace both understandings of the Mass, FM and DM (pardon the abbrevs.) One of my many grave concerns with the Renewing Worship stuff is the apparent lack of interest in anything that Rome is doing. LBW came out, though not entirely, as a ripple effect of Vatican II. Should we not wait and study that revised Sacramentary and take our lead from there? Of course! Why are we so obsessed with our other Protestant "ecumenical partners" at the exclusion of Rome?

I agree with much of what you say, but my argument in defense of the DM is one of musical tradition being kept alive, and because the biblical and poetic underpinings of the ordinary are a powerful educational tool. It serves a distinct pedagogic purpose. I think we all wish everyone knew why we do things in the liturgy and from where these texts come. (until I had sung "Isaiah in a vision did of old" I did not know where the words of the Sanctus came from, or from what context. Sad, but true. And I had pretty decent catechesis in Jr. High.)

In my many interviews for various church positions at Lutheran churches, the one question that always pops up was "what is Lutheran music." And invariably I go back to what I believe Luther understood: That music is a unique and effective tool for teaching the basic constructs of the faith. And, lets face it, it also is aestheically pleasing. In the words of The Council music is "for the joy and edification of the people."

I think the DM hits it on both counts.

Fun conversation.

Dwight P. said...

Yeah, Brother, I think -- as usual -- that we pretty much agree. I would not for one second suggest that the hymns/canticles designated as the "DM" are inadequate, trite, forgettable, ignorable: I did not grow up with most of that music, but since being introduced to it, I sing and hum it all the time. It is regal and -- most important -- faithful, and all children should learn it.

The fundamental issue we're skirting is that for most Christians, the life of faith and the life of Church are divorceable and both essentially matters of "taste." We have lost, in Lutheranism, most sense of the Great Tradition. (That is evident in much recent so-called hymnody.) Hence, Latin is meaningless to most, except the choir-music geeks. (FYI, Erika, my daughter, and I regularly sing the Agnus Dei in Latin, regardless of what the congregation is doing. And to our credit, our congregation does on occasion sing the Agnus in Latin. Now if we could get the Sanctus!)

But I don't mean to bash just Lutheranism on music. When I was studying liturgy at St. John's, my monk-mentor took me with him when he presided at St. John's Sem. He announced on the spur of the moment that we'd be doing the mass in Latin. NONE of the seminarians could sing the Latin. At one point, the Agnus, only he and I were singing. He was so ticked, that he slammed his hand on the altar, and angrily proclaimed, "Do you know how embarrassing it is for me that the only person in the chapel who knows the Latin text is a Protestant? Now you're going to learn it, and you won't commune until you can sing it." He then proceeded to teach them the Agnus Dei. (This was also one of my glory moments: It cemented a loving relationship with that mentor -- who, incidentally, had almost been tried by a Vatican tibunal for his constant lobbying for the mass in the vernacular! Only Vatican II saved him -- and when it opened, he was summoned to Rome to serve as a paretus on the liturgy.)

I would happily continue to support a Reformation Sunday if I sensed that the impetus behind the day was an effort to connect the Lutheran Church to the Church catholic and to celebrate the diversity of gifts that the various traditions (our own included) bring to the banquet. As I have indicated, however, I don't sense that. Instead, chauvinism rules.


Daniel S. said...

Amen and Amen.

We friends again(?!) I never doubted...

Your point about St. John's reminds me of several instances at my former Catholic church job. Indeed, even here at LSTC, where we share classroom and worship space with McCormick Presbyterian seminary, we often know more about their reformed/calvinistic tradition - both musically and liturgically - than they do. (The concept of the geneven psalter is almost foreign to them) I will, however, give them their due as they do celebrate the Eucharist weekly.

This whole thing has brought up many seeds for future musings (I hope): The role of denominationalism (and the value of upholding unique denominational traditions regarding music and ritual), latin, upacking Vatican II's influence on protestants and it's ongoing influence across the church, and taste/aesthetic. IS there a "holy aesthetic?" Let's face it, different rooms, different music and art produce wide ranges of responses. We don't seem to want to talk about it in such terms, primarily because the popular culture in the church is so paranoid and fearful of making any kind of value judgments. I say bring back the value judgments! Some things are better than others. We just need to figure out a way to talk about them in a healthy and helpful way. (I'm reminded of a t-shirt worn by a fellow organist friend that he got from "The Onion" newspaper that read "Your favorite hymn sucks.")

Et cum spiritu tuo.

Anonymous said...

To Daniel S., who wrote: "Now if you have aesthetic problems with how the music was played, your church should have hired a different musician..."

Sour grapes make a poor whine.

Daniel S. said...

Oh for crying out loud, it was a JOKE. It was all in good fun, "Anonymous" (why the anonymity?), and everyone knew it. I know the musician at brother Dwight's church, and the folks who need to know are well aware that I have nothing but profound respect for the resident cantor and the wonderful program he is building. You should go and hear him if you haven't. It's not sour grapes, "Anonymous," I'm very happy with the grapes I have, thank you.

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