Saturday, November 1, 2014

Of Reformation Day, All Souls' Day or Halloween?

SCRIPTURE: Hebrews 13:24
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: October 31st, 2014

"Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings." (Heb 13:24, ESV)

MAIN POINT: The best way we can remember October 31st, 2014 is not to buy into the fun of Halloween, which really means nothing much, besides the candies in our mouths and cavities in our teeth. As Christians, we can honour Christ by remembering, and learning from the great Reformation in the 16th Century and to be constantly reforming ourselves. Who knows, we may very well be planting the seeds of reformation for the generations to come.

It's that time of the year again, of Trick-n-Treating. For the past two years, I have been buying boxes of chocolates and candies, of different colours, shapes, and sizes. From as early as 4 in the afternoon till as late as 10pm, October 31st is also the day where family members keep running back and forth to answer the doorbell. Usually there are young school kids at the door in groups. Those who come with parents are the cutest, in their bumblebee costumes, disney characters, or simply some colourful makeup on the faces. Not scary but highly amusing. Once there was this little toddler that was so cute that I struggled to control my squeal of delight inside. God certainly makes children adorable. (There goes another box of candies.)

The older ones tend to be a little more adventurous, donning more sinister costumes. Anyway, in good fun, I distribute the goodies liberally, to be rewarded with a musical "Thank You" as payment. Halloween celebrations are big events in the annual calendar. Students dress up for the occasion in the morning, and had special celebrations in school. At dusk, they venture out to the neighbourhoods to fill up their goody bags.

All in the name of fun! Period.

However, Church history offers a different view of October 31st. There are at least two other significant events: 1) Eve of All Saints Day; 2) Reformation Day.

A) All Saints Day

For Roman Catholics, November 1st is known as "All Saints' Day" followed by "All Souls Day" on November 2nd. Pious Catholics would attend Mass on the Eve of All Saints day to honour the saints of old. Believers will pray for those in heaven, those who have blessed others and brought honour and glory to God. On "All Souls Day," prayers would be offered to the rest of the people, in particular those who are considered to be still in the stage of purgatory. Over the years, the simple purpose to pray has also been mixed with superstitions and one of which is, Halloween. The word "Hallow" means "holy." In the Lord's Prayer, when we say, "Our Father, Hallowed be Your Name," we are essentially invoking God's Name is Holy. Lots of articles have been written on the origin of Halloween so I will not want to dwell much on it, except to say that pagans of old have tried to capitalize on the popular name and to do a twist out of it.

In Church history, on November 1st, 1755, the terrible Lisbon earthquake took the lives of between ten to fifteen thousand people. Others gave a higher estimate of up to one hundred thousand, out of a population of 275 thousand! That is nearly a third who died in one earthquake! Many buildings were destroyed. Waters gushed in to flood many places. It makes November 2nd then, a very sobering day for survivors, to pray for those souls that perished the day before. 

For those who are not from the Roman Catholic faith, they can use this occasion to pray for the Church community, and the prayer to be faithful. They can remember those who had been faithful and those who had left their footsteps behind for us to follow. People such as St Augustine, who had blessed the Church with an amazing "Confessions" to show us that he was not perfect. People who fled to the desert during times of corruption to escape the clutches of the world, to give us monastic wisdom and to plant the seed of the modern University system. Or the many martyrs who died for the cause of Christ, from the first century to now. By their examples, we shall be encouraged.

B) Reformation Day

(Picture Credit: protestantreformation)
For Protestants, October 31st, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses at the door of All Saints Church at Wittenberg. Contrary to what some people thought, Luther did not simply slap the 95 statements to declare independence from the Roman establishment. In other words, it was not a unilateral decision that steamrolls all others or plaster "Protestant theology" over and above all others. Luther was simply trying to invite debate, according to custom. His action was triggered by the abuse of Scripture by the Church then, especially over the sale of "indulgences." Essentially, "indulgences" are kinds of "forgiveness certificates" where the possession of one would absolve us from our sins. Luther, a Doctor of the Holy Scriptures was appalled by the sales pitch of one indulgence salesman:
"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."
It may rhyme but it also rubs Luther on the wrong side. Thus, Luther, according to University customs, pasted the 95 theses on the doors of Wittenberg to invite scholarly debate. Unfortunately, the news spread and what Luther intended for an academic debate turned into a revolutionary Protestant movement that we knew of today. Lest some of my readers mistake the Reformation for what it is not, it is important to recognize that Luther was just trying to get the theology correct. He was doing his role as an academic and as a theologian. He was not trying to spark up a peasants' movement or some kind of an "Occupy Wittenberg" protest demonstration. In fact, he had no idea that his 95 theses would have such a huge impact on Christianity at all. Church historians William Placher and Derek Nelson wrote:
"At first, Luther did not recognize the radical implications of his conclusions. He hoped that the church would acknowledge that he was right. Then in 1519 the great scholar John Eck came to Leipzig to debate him, and Eck persuaded even Luther that his views were contrary to the official teachings of the church. By this time, however, Luther had such confidence in his conclusions that, if they contradicted popes and councils, so much the worse for the popes and councils. And so, in the scene in 1521 described at the beginning of this chapter, he refused to recant. He soon drew widespread support from many directions. Corruption had filled the church, and many people eagerly sought some kind of fundamental change in such a contaminated system. In Germany in particular, the absence of a strong central government left people at the mercy of church taxation, which they deeply resented." (Placher and Nelson, A History of Christian Theology, Louisville, KY: WJK, 2013, p156)

At the heart of Luther's thesis was grace. One cannot save the soul by the transactions of indulgences. The reason the Protestant movement grew was because of several other factors, like the rise of the printing technology; the frustration of people with corruption; and the increasing tax burdens associated with the Church; and many more. People wanted change and Luther was there to supply the seeds of change.

C) Turning Point

In a self-help world, people tend to do things themselves thinking that God will only help those who help themselves. Indeed, as people becomes more educated, better trained, and adequately skilled, there is a tendency to depend on oneself rather than to wait for others. If one can fix the sink, why call for the plumber? Applied to our spiritual life, we may tend to think that if we do all the Bible ourselves, all the praying ourselves, and all the Christian living ourselves, our personal Christianity would be perfect.

Wrong. Christianity is not about us doing all the Church work or the devotion stuff. Christianity is about Jesus Christ and how our work and activities honour God in Christ. Kenneth Richard Samples, an adjunct professor at Biola University adopts a 3G manner to think and to live out the Christian Life. The first is Guilt, which is a recognition of what sin has done to us. The law convicts us of sin and pronounces us guilty. Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. The second G is Grace, that because we cannot save ourselves, God in His Mighty Grace in Christ, forgives us of our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. The third response is Gratitude, which ought to define how we live our Christianity. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.

Christianity based on Guilt alone is debilitating.  Christianity that ignores sin and guilt and assumes only grace without repentance is antinomianism, something Bonhoeffer calls "cheap grace." Michael Brown calls it "hyper grace," which is that overwhelmingly positivistic message that drown out all negativity. Others would simply prefer a "balance" of guilt and grace as a way to move forward.

Not so simple. I think Samples is spot on with his third G: Gratitude. We are grateful that in spite of our guilt, God chooses to reach out to us. In spite of our sin, God chooses to shower us grace. That is why I believe that Christians ought to be the most thankful people on earth. Thankful that God has forgiven us of our sins. Thankful for Jesus Christ. Thankful that we are called to serve the All-Loving God even in a hostile world.  Mark Noll introduces the term "turning point" in reading Church history.  What happened on October 31st, 1517 sparked off several debates that culminated in a widely watched "Diet of Worms" meeting in 1521 between King Charles V and Martin Luther, where Luther presented and defended his theses. According to Noll, it was the last four theses that are closest to Luther's main concern. I reproduce them below:

"92 - Away with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, 'Peace, peace' and there is no peace!
93 - Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, 'Cross, cross' and there is no cross!
94 - Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;
95 - And this be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace."
(Mark Noll, Turning Points 3rd edition, Baker Books, 2012, p158)
Theses 92 and 93 are written against prophets who cry out false peace and no cross. Theses 94 and 95 are exhortations to all to let Christ be the way, the truth, and the life for all. Perhaps, the way forward is to learn from the Reformed movement who had this catchphrase: "Reformed but always Reforming." Good reminder.

THOUGHT: "The story of Christian reformation, revival, and renaissance underscores that the darkest hour is often just before the dawn, so we should always be people of hope and prayer, not gloom and defeatism. God the Holy Spirit can turn the situation around in five minutes." (Os Guinness)


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