Reformation Redux- Anniversary and Action

by Nathan Proctor

Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts and questions about how and why we celebrate World Communion Sunday, and mentioned that how we observe and remember the Reformation is also worth exploring together.

Reformation Sunday

Each year on the last Sunday of October, we dust off the red paraments we haven’t seen since Pentecost, hire brass instruments, create a liturgy of historical creeds and confessions, and bust out some of the most beloved hymns of the Protestant church.  How great is that moment when with joined voices we get to joyfully sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God or I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art?  I love that these hymns are not only strong and beautiful melodies to sing but they have a tangible connection to our history.  Our services talk of Luther and Calvin and then in well-loved song we get to experience something these reformers shared with the church- we suddenly are connected with believers and congregations across time!

While I think our understanding of how to honor Reformation Sunday is a worthy effort at connecting our faith with the history of these important reformers, could we also stretch beyond the historical component, and allow ourselves new space to think and celebrate?

By always having this celebration on the last Sunday in October, tying it to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, we minimize the Reformation to simply a historical anniversary to observe.  Instead of marking a specific day, could we change it up and celebrate a church that is still reforming on a different Sunday of the year?  I think if we are freed from a specific date or historical occurrence, we can in turn be free to look at reforming as a broad and wonderful concept -an idea of change and growth that is bigger than ourselves and ultimately bigger than any one day or season.

Instead of a Sunday that traces the history of the Protestant church, what if we looked at a bigger picture of our world and witnessed how the church, through God’s grace, has been (and still is) a reforming agent? Maybe then we could focus on how our congregations have been praying and growing over generations when faced with hard questions about race relations, or gender equality, or poverty.  How interesting would it be if we celebrated Reformation on “International Day of Peace” in September or on “World AIDS Day” in December? What if we celebrated reformations multiple times a year? I think days like these suggestions would challenge us to think about how we care for the sick and the outcast, or work for ways of peace in the world. Yes, we would discover that the church has made missteps along the way, but I think the bigger picture is what we could learn from this honest history, and to dream how we might do things differently. How are we, as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination called to reform our world?  A fresh date might allow us new insight in trying to answer this question.

There is also something that feels odd to me about celebrating only one side of the story without acknowledging that the actual Reformation event spurred one of the biggest schisms in church history.  I realize that it’s more vision than reality to imagine all of us living peacefully together in faith, and that the church has always had some sort of fracture as it reflects the fractured people that take part in it, but I long for ways of reforming that bring us closer together to be the church we think God is calling us to be.

Can we be intentional about training our celebration towards some of the more beautiful ways we have all reformed? I am struck by Martin Luther’s idea to translate the scriptures into the vernacular.  In the midst of a divisive era, it created new ways for people to unify together around the word of God.  Hearing God speak your language breaks down barriers and proclaims that language does not separate you from God or one another.  Imagine all the reforms the church has made since that time that continue to break down divisions – your country or political regime does not separate you from God, your gender or sexuality does not separate you from God.  Neither does family, diagnosis, disease, physical limitations…and on and on.  Reformation can be about widening the circle, opening gates and welcoming people, not just about breaking away and dogmatic disputes.

Reformation is clearly both an anniversary and an activity.  Can we see it as a celebration of something in history, and as a driving force in the future story of the church?  I dream that as we next encounter a Reformation Sunday we might be able to bring about more justice, more hope, more unity, and more beauty to our world.

{This post is the second of a two-part series; Part one discusses sharing communion from a universal perspective on  World Communion Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and then leads three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and conducts choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.

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