Today marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that was led by a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther, and one that profoundly altered the infrastructure of a Christian Europe.
On October 31, 1517, the day before All Saints’ Day, a solemn day on the church calendar, Luther posted what has historically arrived to be known in theological circles as the 95 Theses, on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
In reality, they were ‘grievances’ he had with the Roman Church, of which he was a huge part.
Luther’s grievance Number One, if it can be called that, was against the price of ‘indulgences’ the church levied on mostly poor peasants, who supposedly committed what the Church considered as sins, in their teachings and in the indoctrinated understanding of the peasants themselves, heavy drinking a chief one among them.
I guess one had to ‘pay’ to the church to have their ‘sins absolved’.
So the math works that, if the flock sin more, the church’s coffers get richer.
This penance offering was used almost entirely to construct The Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, arguably the most breath-taking structure in all the world.
I have stood on the cobble-stoned steps of the majestic Saint Peter’s Square that houses the basilica, with the arms of the gigantic Roman columns all around me as if in an embrace.
To say, I got all goose-bumped would be an understatement.
And The Sistine Chapel. La Capella Sistina.
What is there to say about it? How can one describe it?
the Reformation in Western Europe had followed the Italian Renaissance and coexisted in close historical epoch, one enriching the other.
The famous fresco painting on the chapel’s ceiling, ‘The Creation of Adam’: where God as a dynamic figure on the right, lifting Adam up from his slumber, Adam as the lithe figure on the left, their forefingers reaching for each other’s but not touching, creating that space between them where infinite possibilities exist.
Frankly, It’s disingenuous to soak this all in to a hilt, and then disapprove of the method by which it got there.
It’s equally hard for me to fathom this was the effort of a mere Man. I have no doubt whatsoever it was Divinely inspired. God was there holding the Man’s (a devout one) hand.
So, In a strange sort of admission, I’m glad Pope Leo commissioned it. (Apparently Michelangelo didn’t come cheap. 😁)
However, I wonder what Peter would say to seeing all this. Jesus might say to His most trusted disciple: Hey, Pathrose! This is not what I had in mind. 😉
So in a more real sense, I’m glad the indulgences were done away with.
The theology of the protestant reformers departed from the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of, at a minimum, three great principles.
- The sole authority of the Scripture.
- Justification by faith alone.
- Priesthood of the believer.
There were other major and significant points as well. It’s too lengthy to elaborate on them in this space. (Each one is a separate blog.)
Christian Community may not be cognizant of these Doctrinal differences, as much as what has really ‘set us up apart’ for five centuries, which are the seminal changes that occurred after and as a result.
This tide-turning movement that happened in the 1500-year-old Church’s history ushered in (among others):
-The end of priestly celibacy (Luther got married),
-Translating the Bible into local vernacular, so that lay people could read, study, and interpret, the Word of God all on their own (Luther translated much into German),
-Incorporating sermons and hymns during worship service (‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, a personal all-time favorite hymn, was written by Martin Luther himself.)
-and priests playing a significant role in parishioners’ daily lives, pastoring of sorts. Parish life became part of one’s spiritual life.
A single man single-handedly stood down the Pope, and Christendom was ruptured along its fault lines.
While the centrality of the Papal authority has enabled the Roman Church to remain as one, the schisms in the Protestant movement have led to innumerable denominations within it, each with different doctrines and core practices. Staying true to its name: as people who protest.
Exactly 318 years after this major crack in Europe’s Christianity, a similar kind of Reformation found its way across the continent to the Malabar Coast of Southern India, to the Malankara Syrian Church of Malabar and Travancore.
This is known as ‘Navee-karanam’ in Malayalam (meaning Renewal), and The Malankara MarThoma Syrian Church of Malabar was formed in 1835, and has never looked back.
And I’d say The MarThoma Church grabbed this crusade by its horns, and kind of ‘ran with it’. The structure, and The Practices.
One would expect nothing less from the ‘Syrian Chrsitians’ of Travancore, right?
-The Singing, the Memory Verses.
-Localized Prayer Groups within a parish (Prarthana Muri), Vicar’s church-mandated house visits (Bhavana Sandarshanam) to parishioners’ homes.
-The ‘Suvishesha Sevika Sankham’, the women’s arm that was solely created to empower women, in a way no one else dared in 1919 Travancore;
An event that was preceded by the founding of the Nicholson Syrian Girls High School in 1910, modeled after schools in Britain for the same great cause of educating girls in a Christian setting.
-The ‘Sannadha Suvishesha Sankham’, dedicated to the spreading of the Gospel.
-The Maramon Convention, a Western-origin ‘revivalist’ gathering, the largest of its kind in Asia.
And so much more.
I can claim without equivocation, that no denomination pays the kind of singular attention to learning the Bible the way The MarThoma Church does, not even Mainline American Protestant churches. Seriously, the best part.
At the core of it, MarThoma Church‘s foundation is and has always been The Gospel of Jesus Christ: the Four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It used to bear that if something’s not in one of the four Gospels, we did not practice it. This may have transformed over the course of the last century, as complacency and the need to conform with outside strictures have crept in, but the core remains pretty much the same.
For better or for worse, here we are, one half of a millennium later.
Regardless of how it all turned out, we all owe much to the forerunners who brought about the positive changes; even the Roman Catholics must be pleased: after all who needs those who press for changes all the time?
And in honour of Martin Luther and one Abraham Malpan (called The Luther of the East),
Happy Reformation Day to all…