To this day the publication of Luther’s theses on 31 October 1517 symbolises the beginnings of the Reformation, a key event of German history. Its religious, societal, political and cultural impact took on world historical significance – and can still be felt to this day. In Berlin several representatives of the Church and politics commemorated this event on Reformation Day and launched the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 with a festival church service and a ceremony. The celebration event held in the Konzerthaus on the Gendarmenmarkt was dedicated to the themes of tolerance, diversity, liberty, but also reformatory responsibility: Federal President Joachim Gauck appealed for more solidarity and humanity.
Anniversary of the Reformation declared open! The jubilee year marking 500 years of the Reformation has begun with festival services and celebrations.
Federal president on grace
In his ceremonial address the federal president honoured the Reformation for having shaped today’s community – without the spark of the Reformation, there would be neither freedom of faith and conscience nor inalienable fundamental rights. In so doing, Gauck stressed the key role played by the responsible and independent citizen in free societies, a citizen who “ultimately answers to his conscience alone”.
For the president, the most important word of the Reformation is probably “grace”. Especially today, society “needs nothing as much as its needs grace”. Gauck lamented that “a malevolent spirit of gracelessness” is becoming widespread, a spirit “of putting people down, self-righteousness, contempt”. He thus appealed in his speech for more solidarity and humanity, for even if people do not believe in God’s grace they can and should be gracious towards themselves and other people. He argued that in times in which anger and hatred is preached on the internet instead of love for one’s neighbour and peacefulness, this is not a superfluous warning.
“A cultural event of global standing”
The evening also saw mention of the dark sides to the reformer. “Martin Luther irritates, provokes and challenges us – to this day,” recognised Federal Government Commissioner for Culture Monika Grütters (CDU). In clear terms, she observed that one could admire Luther for his attitude or revile him for his tirades against people with different thoughts and different faith, but “you can’t ignore him”. Nevertheless, for Grütters, whose office is coordinating the state projects for the anniversary, the jubilee represents a “cultural event of world standing”, given the Reformation’s massive intellectual and political impact.
Berlin’s Governing Mayor Michael Müller (SPD), who had extended the invitation to the ceremony in the Konzerthaus, also spoke of the outstanding significance of the Reformation, recognising its impact beyond the Church and its echo to this day. He named democracy and critical civil society as examples of lessons learned from the Reformation. “Our community needs people who take responsibility, show attitude and participate with courage,” said the head of Berlin’s government, stressing that above all we need people to live their faith and put in into action.
Visitors were able to inform themselves about the far-reaching consequences and the global dimension of the Reformation in front of the Konzerthaus on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt. To mark Reformation Day, the “Luther 2017” state office had displayed two large “maps of the Reformation”. Visitors could move around on maps of Germany and the world and discover marked sites of the Reformation and get to know Reformation personalities.
The festival year ends on 31 October 2017, exactly 500 years after Martin Luther’s legendary act of nailing his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. The federal government presented its new online portal. A wealth of information on the upcoming events can be found at www.reformationsjubilaeum-bund.de.
A Reformation Day all about ecumenism
In the afternoon the anniversary of the Reformation was opened by the Church with a festival service in St. Mary’s Church on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. In his sermon Berlin’s Evangelical bishop Markus Dröge called on people to continue discovering new strength, a strength “that moves and transforms people, that encourages them to look beyond that which already exists.”
A particular focus of the service was the ecumenical dimension of the celebrations: the approximately 750 guests invited from politics, the churches and society included the chairman of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference, Reinhard Cardinal Marx, the Catholic Bishop of Berlin, Heiner Koch, and dignitaries of the Orthodox Churches.
To launch the anniversary year the Evangelical Church sent out an ecumenical message: during the festival service, the chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, awarded Cardinal emeritus Karl Lehmann the Martin Luther Medal, to great applause. The former Bishop of Mainz was the first Catholic to receive the Martin Luther Medal of the EKD, for his unique efforts in promoting ecumenism. In his acceptance speech, Lehmann spoke of further progress in ecumenism: “We have owed it to our age for a long time.”
This was a Reformation Day all about ecumenism, and not just in Berlin. In Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis and the Lutheran World Federation held a common service. Regarding this extraordinary encounter, Bedford-Strohm declared, “We go into this Reformation jubilee year with great ecumenical confidence – 2017 is an historical chance on the path to the unity of the Churches.”