Today is Halloween, of course, but it is also Reformation Day in the Lutheran Church. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther, dressed as a monk, played a world-historical trick on the Catholic Church by nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. What exactly he intended to accomplish with this act of vandalism remains unclear, but we are all aware of the consequences, both good and bad. Through the centuries, Reformation Day (now typically celebrated on the previous Sunday) has served as a sort of Protestant 4th of July, with multiple renditions of "A Mighty Fortress" and a festive meal in the church basement. But perhaps the day calls for more reflection and less denominational patriotism. After all, the existence of a separate Lutheran church is not necessarily a good thing, and the freedom we gained in the Reformation will be in vain if we forget what motivated Luther in the first place - the insight that justification comes through faith alone. Reformation Day is worthwhile only if it spurs the Church to renew its commitment to the articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae.
A brief aside: The Catholic author Flannery O'Connor was at a dinner party when "the conversation turned to the Eucharist." A lady remarked that "when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one." To which O'Connor replied, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." She later wrote that "that was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."
O'Connor's words often come to mind when I contemplate what the doctrine of justification through faith means to me. This article has come under frequent attack, especially in recent years, and the only defense I can offer is that it serves as "the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." It is a source of joy and my refuge in distress. To those who would say that it is merely a doctrine, one among many, my reply is nearly the same as O'Connor's: "Well, if it's just a doctrine, to hell with it." As Luther said, "nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls... Upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice." In other words, justification is the Word that God has spoken to his Creation, and we must resist all attempts to obscure its radical message with caveats and evasions.
Ultimately, O'Connor's position is not that different than mine. The sacrament is, after all, nothing more and nothing less than the visible Word - "my body given for you." Similarly, the justifying Word comes to us in the very human and very earthy language of Scripture. As Luther said, "The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our bosom." Reformation Day reminds us that the Church and all its members live only from these two gifts of Word and Sacrament. Thus, the Church is never a finished product capable of standing on its own two feet. The Holy Spirit continues to work within the Church, justifying it through grace, and that is the reason why we celebrate today. Semper Reformanda!