Almost all of my trick or treating took place in the 1980s. By the end of that decade I was in grade eight and had pretty much left October 31st to the younger kids. My Halloween tradition was by then reduced to little more than listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s mock-horror song, “A Nightmare on My Street.”
Even when we used to go out for candy, our Halloweens were usually mild. I did dress up as a werewolf on one occasion (but characteristically, I had in mind Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf rather than An American Werewolf in London), but most times I was happy to go as something utterly harmless–a baseball player or, once, Groucho Marx. Seeing 1980s Halloweens as they’re portrayed in pop culture–in a new episode of Stranger Things or in a recent viewing of E.T. with our kids–it all looks pretty unfamiliar to me. In those suburbs, in contrast to mine, Halloween looks downright menacing, with angry voices behind hideous masks terrorizing little kids, fires being set on the corners of streets, and projectiles of all sorts being tossed at houses and passing cars. I see these scenes on television and think, Why do we do this? Then I remember that I thought of Halloween then primarily as a night of restocking my supply of junk food. My memories are almost solely of safety and candy. Still, under the cover of darkness, there were, once or twice, malicious ghosts and ghouls lurking in our neighbourhood too, who left us to wash egg from the siding of our house the next morning.
Five hundred years ago today, long before anyone had ever thought of trick or treating, a young German monk and teacher named Martin Luther did something that has ever since marked the beginning of the Reformation–the movement to change the practices of the late medieval Catholic church that eventually resulted in the split from which the Protestant churches were born. In his region of Germany, church officials had been making the rounds among the uneducated, trying to sell them “indulgences”–a church teaching that by then essentially meant, “Give us money and we can have your sins forgiven or get your dead loved ones into heaven for you.” Luther wrote a treatise calling for this practice to stop, and at noon on October 31, 1517, he posted his argument to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church for the community there to see and discuss. The treatise has been known ever since as the 95 Theses, and its public appearance is seen as a watershed in church history.
Luther’s paper exposed some ghosts in Christian history that we all–Protestants and Catholics alike–might prefer to forget: the corrupting effects of power; the fact that with the passing of time it is easy to lose sight of what we were all about in the first place; the simple and persistent realities of human greed and selfishness. Humans are not impervious to the attacks of any of these ghosts. Those of us who are Christians–who came to Jesus precisely because we believed that he along could forgive and release us from our sins–especially need to guard against thinking we are incorruptible. We’ve all got ghosts in our past, as well as the temptation right now to travel similar roads again.
Sometimes we wish we could sanitize all of our history–making it as harmless as I usually remember those eighties Lake Echo Halloweens. But we do have a messy past. Luther himself–echoing the biblical apostle Paul before him, who regarded himself as the “chief of sinners”–knew that sin in his life was both a past fact and a present struggle. Thankfully, the truth of Christianity–the truth of Jesus–does not depend on me being perfect or on the Christian church as an institution being perfect. Christian truth depends on the grace of God to forgive sinners through Jesus’ achievement in his life, death, and resurrection, and nothing more. The great work of the Reformation that Luther in his small way set in motion 500 years ago today was to send us–imperfect as we are, alone and together–back to God himself, to the mercy of Jesus, to the word God speaks to us through the Bible by his Spirit. The legacy of the Reformation is itself a checkered one, because none of us is without fault. But the insight to send the church and the world back to the Bible and to the free gift of forgiveness and hope in Jesus is an enduring legacy we rightly continue to celebrate 500 years on.