When I was a kid, my family always did Halloween well. After trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, all my local cousins, aunts, and uncles gathered at my grandparents’ house (conveniently next door to me) for hot dogs and marshmallows roasted on an outside fire. As the evening went on, there were inevitable ghost stories and good-natured scary pranks, usually orchestrated by the adults. I’ll never forget my dad wearing a sheet and loping wildly through a pasture behind us, working hard to be a good ghost, but getting laughs from everyone instead of squeals. He’s 81 now, and we still talk about that one when the family gets together. Halloween was a big deal in those days, and I remember thinking as a kid that each Halloween was the best.
The very best Halloween ever, though, had nothing to do with candy and costumes, or ghosts and goblins. It was October 31, 1517, exactly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His goal was to debate the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church, certificates purchased by parishioners which reduced punishment for their sins and for the sins of those in purgatory. Luther’s ultimate desire was to refocus the church on salvation by grace through faith, made possible by Christ’s work on the cross. His bold move at Wittenberg marked the start of the Reformation of the church, and is commemorated each year on October 31 as Reformation Day.
Of course Luther wasn’t trick-or-treating when he marched up the steps of the church in Wittenberg, but it is probably no accident he picked October 31. That day was celebrated as All Hallows Eve, the day before the November 1 Christian feast of All Saints (Hallows) Day. All Saints Day dates back to the eighth century and was designed to stamp out pagan traditions and convert people to Christianity. So it certainly seems that Luther’s picking October 31 to force the issue of indulgences and salvation by faith was well-planned.
The English Halloween is short for “All Hallows Eve”, and some claim that trick-or-treating may have begun as an effort to drive Satan away by ridiculing him. This is why we see the beginning of the custom of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Children were dressed up in costumes to further mock the demonic realm. The whole idea was to humiliate Satan because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation of the church was an even greater jab at Satan’s defeat at the hands of Jesus Christ, whose hands were pierced for the sins of the the world.
This Halloween let’s have some fun. Enjoy the Family Fun Fest at Trinity Worship Center. Score some candy your children collected at the neighbors’ steps. Costume-up and celebrate the joy of Christ’s victory over evil. At some point, though, take a moment or two and remember the Catholic priest who exactly 500 years ago, courageously made his way up the steps at Castle Church with a hammer and a cause, and changed with one nail the scope of our faith. October 31, 1517 - truly the best Halloween ever!