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Knock, knock, knockin’ on Wittenberg’s door

“Martin Luther” and his friends march through Wittenberg’s market square on Reformation Day, a Protestant holiday there. Photo provided by Karen G. Bockelman

I’ve been fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel — Europe, India, the Middle East, China — nearly all for work or study. But the one trip that had eluded me was a chance to explore the Luther sites of Germany. When I heard about a 2011 Reformation pilgrimage to Prague and Germany, with a focus on “Luther and the Word,” I was intrigued. Then I saw the itinerary, promising Reformation Day in Wittenberg. How great was that? Better than I could have imagined.

October 31, Reformation Day, is observed as a Protestant holiday in the town where Luther lived and worked for most of his life. The market square is taken over by a Reformation Festival, with period music, food, crafts, children’s rides, costumed vendors, even a seller of indulgences. There are worship services (in German and English), concerts, exhibitions, lectures, and a Confirmation Rally. The color and excitement of the parade of town, church, and university dignitaries, accompanied by “Luther” himself, was surpassed by the energy of hundreds of confirmation students, marching behind congregational banners and singing what had to have been the German equivalent of praise songs.

At 15:17 (3:17 p.m.) a shower of white paper airplanes (looking very much like a flock of doves) was launched from the tower of the Castle Church. I found out later that schools, student organizations, and church groups throughout Germany organized “flashmobs” to bestow “blessings from above.” Each paper carried a message or Bible verse proclaiming that God’s grace is available to all. Many simply said, “Jesus loves you.”

A Lutheran confirmation rally winds through the streets of Wittenberg.

The idea of celebrating Reformation Day in Wittenberg had appealed to my Lutheran identity, German heritage, and love of history.

Later in the afternoon a group of church leaders, school children, and visitors gathered for a tree-planting ceremony in the Luther Garden where, in the past, the fortifications of the town were located. In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, 500 trees will be planted, sponsored by congregations, synods, church bodies, and institutions from around the world. When completed, this living monument will take the shape of the Luther Rose, with the cross at its center. At the beginning of the project, the Lord Mayor of Wittenberg said, “A hundred years ago, we Germans celebrated a national German jubilee with monuments of bronze or stone. But in 2017 we are going to celebrate an international jubilee with a living, growing monument.”

The idea of celebrating Reformation Day in Wittenberg had appealed to my Lutheran identity, German heritage, and love of history. The reality of celebrating Reformation Day in Wittenberg gave me an appreciation of the Reformation as more than an event in the past. I found a living celebration of a vital, growing, exciting faith.

Oh, and my favorite souvenir? A pair of red socks, proclaiming in German, “Here I stand; I can do no other!”

Karen G. Bockelman is a retired ELCA pastor, currently serving as a volunteer disaster response coordinator in the Northeastern Minnesota Synod (ELCA). She had such a powerful experience in 2011 that she is leading a tour in the fall of 2013. The first stop? Where else? Wittenberg just in time for Reformation Day!

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