Monday, October 31, 2011

The Other October 31st Holiday

Millions of people the world over know that the calendar date of October 31 is a chance to dress up, eat candy and throw parties. Halloween, derived from the former term 'All Hallows Eve' meant to imply the night before All Saints' Day, is actually one of those holidays loosely based on both pagan and Christian traditions but which has come to betoken a more secularized mode of celebration. Yet the date is significant for another reason, an event in history every bit as laudable and largely more important altogether than anything its more popular festival has to offer. Reformation Day commemorates the day in history, October 31, 1517, when a young German monk, Order of St. Augustine, named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses On the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Church in Wittenberg in the region then known as the Holy Roman Empire (modern day Germany). Though officially intended as a scholarly dissertation on the Papacy's policy on indulgences (essentially the theory of buying your way out of purgatory and into heaven), the 95 points of disputation clearly held an undercurrent of challenge to the Roman church whose abuse of power and uncensored distortion of ecclesiastical principles had long preyed upon its subjects.

The date of the posting actually coincided with the Pope's "fundraiser", a sale of indulgences intended to raise money for a new Basilica in Rome and a scheme to which Luther effectively replied "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest of the rich, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" (Thes. 86). Luther would further denounce John Tietzel, one of the leading peddlers of such indulgences and other trinkets, by mocking his trade--"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs"(Thes. 76). The 95 Theses posted to the church door were actually a copy of the same document Luther had disseminated among several of the more prominent princes in the Northern Germanic kingdoms, namely Frederik III of Saxony, an important political figure who would later play an implemental role in protecting Luther himself from angry papal legates. It was a day and an event which put in motion not merely another schism within the Roman church, but an entire breaking from papal authority and its precepts altogether. It was the Protestant Reformation, a movement which re-established salvation along Biblical lines and abolished the Pope's power in much of Europe, spreading first in Germany, then portions of the continental North, Scandinavia and finally Great Britain (It should be noted that King Henry VIII of England allied himself with Luther and his growing contemporaries (Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, etc.) out of mostly selfish ambition, his reasons for turning Protestant more out of a want to annul his marriage than break with the Pope. Though to be fair, Henry was at least marginally keen on the nature of religious dogma and had for some time been contemplating the reformers' theology.) Today Reformation Day is still celebrated on October 31st in the Lutheran Church as well as in other protestant circles. Further Reading on the Protestant Reformation and on Martin Luther can be found in the Dewey number 270.1 or in biographies under B LUTHER.

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