Reformation Day in Wittenberg

November 3, 2008

No-one had planned it this way, but last Friday we found ourselves driving into Martin Luther’s town of Wittenberg on Reformation Day itself, October 31st. This was the anniversary of the day Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, thus triggering the Reformation across Europe.

Last weekend in Amsterdam I had joined Discipleship Training School students from Slovakia for the second half of their Heritage Tour. This two-week trip followed the route we have followed each summer in recent years discovering people and movements which shaped Europe. 

There I introduced them to the Pilgrim Fathers (who worshipped in the English Reformed Church), Jan Amos Comenius (the educationalist who lived his last decade there), and Rembrandt (much of whose art was based on Biblical themes). Then we headed north to Friesland and Menno Simons‘ town of Pingium. After visiting the site of Boniface’s murder in Dokkum, we turned southwards towards Zwolle, where Thomas a Kempis wrote his all-time best-selling devotional, The Imitation of Christ.

Leaving Holland, Köln and Fulda behind us, we traversed Germany towards Luther country in the east. We climbed the last steep ascent to the Wartburg Castle by foot, where Luther had been secretly escorted after friends had kidnapped him on his return from Worms to hide him from his enemies..

Disguised as ‘Squire George’, the bearded Luther had worked in his cell there on a German translation of the New Testament from the original Greek. His passion was to make the truths of the Bible available to all in their own language. In eleven weeks he produced what was to become the standard German edition for centuries to come.


Somewhere along the route, the realisation dawned that our schedule would bring us into Wittenberg on Reformation Day itself. We watched the recent film ‘Luther’ as we crossed the Saxony landscape, in which the reformer (Joseph Fiennes) marches resolutely towards the Wittenberg Door, hammer, nails and list of theses in hand. Very soon we would be standing before this same door ourselves. 

As our bus approached the western outskirts of Wittenberg, the tower of the Castle Church loomed above the skyline. Giant mosaic letters encircled the tower near the top, spelling out the first line of Luther’s famous Reformational hymn, Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott. Our visit to the Wartburg Castle the day before helped us appreciate the significance of the imagery of this hymn for Luther. As did the knowledge that these words had remained visible for all during four decades of communism.

More than any other building, the Castle Church is closely identified with both the beginning and the end of Luther’s Reformational acitivities. The famous Wittenberg Door, once wooden, has long been replaced by a bronze door embossed with all the original 95 theses against malpractises in the Church. 

As we entered the sanctuary, the Reformation Day service had just finished. The programme sheet still available at the door listed the order of service, starting, predictably, with Ein Feste Burg. We joined the remaining congregants at the front of the church gathered around two raised bronze plaques marking the burial sites of Luther and his fellow theologian, Philipp Melancthon, drafter of the Augsburg Confession. Larger-than-life-size portraits of the two Reformation heroes, by the Wittenberg painter Cranach, adorned the wall.

Outside, crowds of visitors merged with locals dressed in period costumes. Wandering minstrels and entertainers added to the festive mood of a medieval fair. Caught up in the swirling human stream, we drifted by stalls of food, crafts, books and souvenirs, past a stout monk plucking his lyre, and into the town hall square. The bronze statues of Luther and Melancthon watched over the revelling crowd enjoying their bratwurst and mulled wine, and children riding on primitive merry-go-rounds.

The twin towers of the Stadtkirche St Marien on the east side of the square beckoned us to explore the sanctuary where Luther often preached, both before and after Reformation.  It was here where peasants had run amok smashing statues, icons and altar pieces while Luther was cloistered away in the Wartburg. 

It was also here where, on his return to the city, Luther preached his ‘Invocavit’ sermons, a series delivered in eight consecutive days on the implications of Biblical truth for daily living. Luther demanded respect for those who remained faithful to their old beliefs, and that the new Gospel should not be forced on any, legally or physically.

Here too he exchanged marriage vows with the runaway nun, Katharina von Bora, scandalising the church establishment yet upholding the biblical status of marriage and family, in the one act.

That union was lived out in a former monastery that the elector prince gave to Doctor and Frau Luther, on the eastern end of town. Today it houses the world’s largest Reformation museum. Luther had lived here before 1517, and from 1532 he and Katharine modelled the new concept of the pfarrerhaus, the pastor’s house or manse, until her death in 1552.

The Luther House became famous for warm hospitality, managed by the very capable, even formidable, Katharine (Herr Käthe, as Luther often called her). The Luther Study is preserved in its original state, with the table where Luther and his student guests often engaged in colourful after-dinner conversation. 

A stone’s throw from the Luther Haus, at the eastern entrance to the city, stands the Luther Oak, marking the spot where the Reformer had burnt the papal bull denouncing his writings. 

A measure of just how much has changed in recent years was last week’s newspaper heading citing the bishops’ synod in Rome on ‘God’s Word in the life and mission of the Church’: 

‘Catholics, read your Bible and pray every day’.

Till next week,

Till next week,

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