You don’t have to be a Lutheran to celebrate Reformation Day. If your family chooses not to participate in Trick or Treat and other Halloween activities — or if you’d like to add a spiritual dimension to October 31st — consider commemorating the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther, a Catholic monk, posted the list of items he wished to debate on the door of the church, a common practice among academics of his day, “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.” In his list of complaints against the Catholic Church, Luther railed against the practice of enriching the Church and granting false security to members by selling indulgences, fees paid to the Church that were said to shorten the duration of time one spent in purgatory. “The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men, ” Luther wrote.
The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” sparked a debate between Luther and those aligned with the pope, leading to the Reformation which resulted in a rediscovery of the doctrine of justification—God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous—through faith alone by God’s grace alone. Many agreed with Luther’s teaching — contrary to Catholic Church doctrine — that Christ offered them salvation not because of any good works or righteousness on their part, but because of what Christ had already done on the cross.
The Reformation caused religious, political, social, and cultural upheaval in Germany and across Europe and changed the course of history. Ultimately, the Reformation led to the formation of the Protestantism, which many today celebrate, as Luther originally proclaimed, “out of love for the truth.”
If your family would like to celebrate Reformation Day this year, here are a few ideas to help make your day fun, educational, and even meaningful.
First, the costumes — there are so many possibilities. Of course, traditional German lederhosen are always appropriate for a Reformation Day celebration. Considering specific characters, Martin Luther is the obvious choice, but there is also Pope Leo X, whose hat even a sewing-challenged mom can find in a drawer somewhere. (Yes, I’ll own up to using Google images to find the easiest costume. I have other skills, OK?) Katherina von Bora, Luther’s wife, would be a good project for the good moms who applied themselves in high school home economics class. Then there is bad boy Johann Tetzel, who sold indulgences, allegedly saying, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.” Or why not don a tail and some horns and dress as the papal bull? Sure, the real papal bull is an official letter from the pope of the Catholic Church, and Pope Leo X issued a rather nasty one threatening Luther with excommunication unless he recanted his teachings opposing Catholic Church doctrine, but as far as I know, no papal bull requires literal Reformation Day costumes, so I say the Reformation Day rules allow a little leeway here.
Next up is music for your celebration. I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that the “Reformation Polka” is our family’s first choice. Before you watch this video, let me apologize in advance. Consider this your warning that the tune is dreadfully catchy and you’ll be singing it long after your Reformation Day celebrations have concluded. Did I mention that you have been warned?
If your tastes lean more toward the classical genre — and frankly, the actual decent musical genre — try Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D major/D minor, Op. 107, also called the “Reformation Symphony.” Mendelssohn wrote it in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, an important document of the Protestant Reformation. The fourth movement of the symphony is based on Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
If you like Luther’s famous hymn, check out Steve Green’s version of the song from 2006. The wardrobe is a bit dated, but Green’s a capella rendition of the hymn makes the hair stand up on my arms every time I hear it — Green seems to channel Martin Luther’s intensity.
To round out your fun — and add some extra education value — I adore the History for Music Lovers videos by the History Teachers. They use popular music (sometimes throwback songs) to teach history, usually fairly accurately and without an agenda. “Martin Luther” is based on the 1980’s Bangles hit “Manic Monday.”
(Again, I apologize for the “Reformation Polka,” but I did warn you.)
If you would like some educational activities for your children (or yourself if you have gaps in your Reformation education), you’ve got plenty of options:
- Reformation skit
- Katie Luther monologue
- Art activities, word searches, and writing prompts
- Make a printing press
- Make a printing press with potatoes!
- Pin the beard on the theologian
- Martin Luther coloring page
- Print out the Ninety-Five Theses and nail them to the door
- Reformation Day puppet show
- Bob (or fish) for the 5 Solas of the Reformation
- Learn about the Top Ten Martin Luther Myths
- Watch Luther or another movie about the Reformation
No Reformation Day would be complete without food. Traditional German recipes could deliciously enhance your celebration, adding authentic charm as well as an educational element. Potato pancakes are fairly easy to cook, even for culinary novices. You could also make this easy slow-cooker sausage and sauerkraut recipe with apples. If you’d like to raise the degree of difficulty, here’s a traditional German potato salad (kartoffelsalat) recipe, and to go completely over the top, try the Schwarzwälder kirschtorte — the Black Forest cherry cake (and please send a slice my way!).
If you want to have a little more fun with your menu (and why wouldn’t you?), there are plenty of options. The Diet of Worms in 1521 was an assembly convened to address the Martin Luther problem and the effects of the Reformation. It resulted in the Edict of Worms, which condemned Luther as a heretic and ordered his capture. A further result was that Christians the world over now honor Luther’s courageous stand by consuming gummy worms on Reformation Day. In addition to eating gummy worms straight out of the package, several traditional recipes have developed over the years:
- Diet of Worms cake
- Dirt Pudding Cups with Worms
- Rice Krispie Treats with Worms
- Worm Cookies
- Homemade Gummy Worms
October 31, 1517, is one of the most significant days in human history — it shaped not only the events of that time period, but altered all of history going forward. As with most historical figures, there are many myths and urban legends surrounding Martin Luther’s life and teachings. However, Luther’s own words best describe his own encounter with the Bible that caused his spiritual transformation which led to the transformation of a nation and the world:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable, monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in Conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven….
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face. [Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Pierce and Smith: 1950), p. 65] (HT: Pyromaniacs)
Now that’s worth celebrating!