Sixteen years ago, Stanley Hauerwas began his Reformation sermon this way:
I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do not understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.
While Hauerwas could be a bit more nuanced, the question implied herein is a good one: Should the Reformation be celebrated or mourned?
In my tradition, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the commemoration of the Reformation is a day, frankly, unlike any other day in the church year. For those local congregations who do not have a daily office or daily Eucharist, Reformation is usually transferred to the nearest Sunday. In many congregations, the entire celebration is orchestrated, with special music, guest preachers, and, often times, even a special meal. Of course, every Lutheran sings with gusto Luther’s famous hymn of the Reformation: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Old timers (i.e., Moderns and Boomers) who, on most Sundays, rebel against the use of Latin in the liturgy, reminisce on this day about how great it used to be to sing in German.
Most surprising to me, however, is that the liturgical color for the day is red. According to the Altar Guild Manual of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, red is the color of zeal and martyrdom and, of course, it is integrally connected with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Therefore, it is the designated color for Pentecost, the feast days of the martyrs as those who shed their blood for Christ and his Church, and ordinations, the latter being the place where the Holy Spirit is given again to a specific man for a specific task.
But knowing all of that, this question emerges: Why, then, does Reformation get red?
Though Luther was, at times, threatened, he did not die a martyr’s death. Neither did Fr. Johannes Bugenhagen, who was given charge of Luther’s wife and children following his death. And neither did the famous lay theologian of the Lutheran Reformation, Philip Melanchthon.
The only other cause for the use of red would be the presumption that the Reformation was a new Pentecost for the Church. This is equally as troubling, however, because it likewise presumes that for hundreds of years, the fullness of the Church ceased to exist (though, officially, Lutherans reject this). Therefore, the color red suggests that it was not until 1517 that the Church came back into existence in a manner not unlike the first Pentecost recorded in Acts.
To that end, the color red is somewhat ironic, since the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod—like historic Lutheranism—sees itself as a reforming movement within the one Church catholic. We are, in other words, evangelical catholics. Our goal is not destruction and re-creation, but reform of an already existing Church.
Therefore, while I would never want to endure the pain that would undoubtedly come with changing a much-loved liturgical commemoration and its corresponding liturgical color, I really wonder why we, the pastors and congregations of the Lutheran Church, don red and not purple for Reformation.
Purple is, of course, the color of sorrow and repentance. And throughout our post-Reformation history, it has usually been the Roman Church who has expressed the reality of liturgical purple, most notably during the Day of Pardon on March 12 of the Jubilee year, 2000. We, on the other hand, do not seem to have mourned the Reformation, let alone apologized for the sins committed therein, especially the sin of helping to break up the visible expression of the Una Sancta, which resulted in plures denominationes.
One of the strangest things about our current cultural milieu, however, is the way in which denominational tags (which are a direct result of the event we celebrate on October 31) mean so little anymore. Instead, post-moderns are, as N.T. Wright has observed, given primarily to beauty, community, spirituality, and justice. What they want (and need!) is a church that is ancient, mysterious, authentic, merciful, compassionate, beautiful, and, most importantly, one.
And that latter adjective, I would propose, is not helped by wearing red for Reformation.
Therefore, it seems fitting that we, Lutherans, make our own mea culpa. It seems fitting that we confess our sins associated with the Reformation and, especially, our continued unkindness toward our brothers and sisters of other theological traditions. It seems fitting that we, once again, make Jesus’s prayer our own, not only in word, but also in deed “ut unum sint.” And wearing purple for Reformation may be a good first step.
October 31 has recently come and gone. Yet, the planning for next year is likely already underway in many Lutheran congregations, and maybe the thoughts provoked by this year’s celebration will lead to a more pastoral approach next year. I know they will for me.
Joshua Genig is pastor of The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta, GA and is finishing a Ph.D. in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Timothy George, Reformation Day
David Yeago, The Catholic Luther
Robert Benne, Lutheran in Search of a Church
Jim Nuechterlein, Lutheran Blues
Russel Saltzman, Unraveling the ELCA
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