Oct. 31: Haunted Still by Luther’s Hope
October 31 has always been a portentous day in our Western culture. In the centuries of our pre-history, it was understood by our Celtic and European forebears to be nothing less than the eve of an annually-repeated rupture between the living and the dead. All the customary protective membranes and trustworthy barriers faded away during those black-dark hours of 31 October when heaven stopped in order that earth might shift from her rhythms of living to the merciless months of dying.
Such a reading of the seasons eventually proved to be too much, of course; and we westerners early began to tame our forebears’ anxieties. As we Christianized, we changed Samhain into All Hallows and then proceeded from there to domesticate All Hallows into Halloween. We even sanctified the time immediately on the other side of the dreaded “night of dark” by establishing November 1 as the holy day of All Saints and, just for good measure, added November 2 as that of All Souls. On the first, good Christian folk recall and honor the lives of those who have been martyred for the faith or, at the very least, have lived exemplary lives of obedience and faithfulness. On the second, we recall the dead of lesser stature or perhaps just of more personal memory and immediate concern. Commencing on All Hallows itself, then, it has been customary for centuries for the devout to go into a nearby, or village, church in order to pray themselves and their dead safely through the uneasy rift of 31 October.
Four hundred and ninety-one years ago today, Martin Luther knew all of this and chose to employ it for the sake of a faith he loved and the reform of a Church he served. We do Luther a great disservice if we see him today as a destroyer and an anarchist. Rather, history shows us a man deeply concerned with the state of his own soul and equally concerned over a Church that had become too encrusted with financial and political concerns to do fully the work of God. It was for this reason that Luther sought public discussion on the matters that seemed to him as a cleric most to defile the Church and to leave it most open to ridicule and scorn. He drew up ninety-five distinct points that he found to be in need of amendment and concerning each of which he desired a time of public debate. Then, in a stroke of genius that would do honor to a contemporary media mogul, Luther took his ninety-five propositions or theses to church with him on October 31.
Whether or not Luther nailed those papers of his on the church door itself is of little moment. Folk history says he did, and real history says he may have. With or without a hammer, though, Luther deliberately chose 31 October. It was the one day in the year when people, both lay and clergy, would come and go through the church at Wittenberg and would, by cultural heritage and conditioned belief, be most susceptible to hearing what he was crying out for them to hear.
The end result of that Halloween almost five centuries ago was not the end result that Luther had desired, and certainly not the one he could ever have envisioned. In fact, though he stuck to his principles and sustained his call for reform, he hated to his dying day being labeled as a protester against the Church. He was of her and acted only out of love of her. What he had unleashed on that Halloween of 1517 was greater than he; and, ultimately, he became its servant more than its originator. Protestantism had been born.
The Reformation is over now. It has been for several decades. We can, and do, speak easily and colloquially nowadays of ourselves as being post-modern, post-rational, and post-Reformation and, if we are Christian, we speak almost as readily of our times as being post-denominational and post-Protestant. In saying these things, we are acknowledging to ourselves and to each other, however innocently, that the eras have changed again, both for the Church and for the culture of which it is a part and which it informs and is informed by.
Luther and Zwingli and Calvin have other names today–ones like McLaren and McKnight, Pagitt and Jones, Mobsby and Rollins; and the new rising or birthing form of both Christianity and of North American Judaism is no longer said by us to be protesting or reforming, but rather to be emerging. So be it. We can no more stop the flow of seismic change than Luther could have, nor would we want to. What came out of Luther and his October 31st had in it the seeds of the literacy, science, technology, commerce, and governing systems that are the hallmarks as well as the privileges of Western life. Beyond those cultural shifts themselves, for the Christian Church it matters that the Great Reformation’s addition of Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy expanded exponentially the demographic and the geographic reach of the faith.
The appropriate question for us and for our October 31st in this year of Our Lord 2008, then, is not one of how do we roll time and its systems or its praxis and doctrines back to where things were when Luther and the Reformation shifted them, or even back to where they were and what they were that made Luther want to shift them. No, the question for us this All Hallows is how do we greet this new thing that has come among us? How do we embrace–or barring that grace, how do we live in balance with–this radical new form of being that decries hierarchy and creeds and calls instead for merciful justice, incarnated belief, the employment of the ancient practices of Judeo-Christian formation and, for Christians specifically, the pursuit of the actualness of what Jesus of Nazareth said? How indeed?
Martin Luther used his All Hallows well. Since we can see that from here, it is only logical to assume that somebody else will be able to see–and assess–us from All Hallows 2499. That thought contains the kind of compelling possibility that has always haunted October 31.
May you and I both have a portentous day.