Observing Reformation Sunday as a special day in the church year is spiritually dangerous. It probably always has been.
It used to be, although seldom is today, an opportunity to remonstrate Roman Catholicism for all its many failings, then congratulate ourselves for being of the line and lineage of that holy and blessed man, Martin Luther.
More recently, it seems to be an opportunity to romantically re-enact past glories, much like a Renaissance Fair and other festive finery. It is an exercise in nostalgia. And a chance to wear red, though this too is confusing, for red is the liturgical color for the Holy Spirit, and it’s hard to fathom how locking the Reformation in as the other day, other than Pentecost, to celebrate the Spirit is wise and good.
Reformation Sunday need not be an exercise in nostalgia, but its particular focus on just one moment in the long history of Christianity makes it suspect.
If we celebrated an entire year, 52 Sundays, with each Sunday celebrating a development in the history of the Christian faith, with the Reformation situated within that larger context, it might work.
As it stands, Reformation Sunday is the only Sunday of the entire church year that commemorates a moment in the history of Christianity rather than a moment in the narrative of Scripture itself. It is elevated and idealized precisely because it is so unique. This needs to stop.
The German view
I’m reminded of the three months I spent in Germany some years ago on a stipend from the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland.
I had gone to study German and interview pastors and professors, asking this question, “What is your impression of the impact of the Reformation on the practice of the German church today?”
The most frequent response I received went something like this, “I’m not sure we really think about this anymore. So much has happened since then. I am more influenced by Schleiermacher, or Barth, or the pietist movement, or … .”
Somehow in the North American Lutheran church context we have elevated this Reformation Sunday thing above all reason.
My organist, Bob Mueller, recently pointed out to me that, where Johann Sebastian Bach wrote dozens of pieces for Pentecost and other festival days, he only got around to writing one piece of music for Reformation Sunday.
Yes, it was observed during his time. But Bach, one of our great Lutheran theologians (and the fifth evangelist) did not think it warranted much attention. Neither should we.
In fact, I think Reformation Sunday warrants none of our attention at all and should be removed from the church liturgical calendar, especially in this moment when we are so at risk of ghettoizing ourselves as Lutherans and falling back on past glories.
After all, our slogan is not “designate one Sunday every year as Reformation Sunday,” but rather “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (the church must always reform). But Luther didn’t say that. The Dutch did.