A Luther-Lantern for Halloween
- Wednesday, October 31, 2001
There’s a carved pumpkin on my doorstep this season but it's no pagan icon. It honors a backwoods monk from sixteenth century Saxony who, in God’s providence, changed the world on what the culture now calls Halloween. It was on that day in 1517 that 37-year-old monk and University of Wittenburg theology professor, Martin Luther, nailed a challenge to the church authorities on the bulletin board—the church door—to debate ninety-five points of Scripture and church custom.
It set in motion a chain of earthshaking events over the next three-and-a-half years that led to what British historian Thomas Carlyle called "The greatest moment in the modern history of man"—Luther before the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. We know it as the Reformation.
On that day in 1521, Dr. Luther stood before the assembled heads of state of the known world. It was standing room only at the Diet of Worms, with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, an awesome collection of lesser provincial kings, princes, nobles, prelates, burghers, and two high-powered representatives of Pope Leo X. The room was so crowded with spectators that the blue bloods could hardly get to their seats. It would be like a meeting of the United Nations today; only this group had real power.
Johann Eck, the pope's envoy, after an exchange of viewpoints that was going nowhere fast, said in Latin:
Martinus, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Huss...How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect Lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the Apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the church...and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate. I ask you, Martinus, answer candidly and without distinctions, do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors they contain?
The air in the room was electric with tension. Luther knew the fate of the Bohemian John Huss 111 years earlier—no doubt Eck mentioned his name on purpose. Huss’s beliefs were similar to Luther’s and he was burned at the stake.
It was never Luther’s desire to create such a ruckus. Neither he nor his family planned that he should even be a monk. It was one of the least regarded professions of the day. There was a widely held suspicion that monastic vows were a copout—an excuse for a man to secure a pleasant, comfortable life without having to work or worry about where his next meal was coming from.
Corruption abounded in the church, and monasteries and nunneries were known for their sexual promiscuity and drunken excesses. It is reported that the highest-ranking church official in England had six illegitimate children in spite of his vows of abstinence.
But Luther's life was forever changed, at age 21, while riding a horse with a friend through the woods during a violent storm. In the midst of a series of lightening bolts that killed his friend he cried in mortal fear, "Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk."
Two weeks later, on July 17, 1505, he said good-bye to an appalled father, had a wild farewell party with his friends, and told them at the door of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenburg, "You see me today and never again." But God had other plans. In his later years he said of that moment, "To the world I had died, till God thought it was time."
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