Trick or Treat? It's Martin Luther
It was October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. He wanted to debate the sale of indulgences with his fellow university professors. He wrote in Latin, but a nameless visionary translated the theses into German, carried them to the printing press, and enabled their dispersion far and wide.
Luther ended up with more than he bargained for, but he proved to be no coward in defending the discoveries he was making in Scripture. When the Roman church wouldn’t serve him the treat of sufficiently addressing his concerns, he was consigned to the role of sparking the now half-millennium running trick called the Protestant church.
Of course Luther wasn’t trick-or-treating when he approached the threshold of the church in Wittenberg, but it’s likely no accident he picked October 31. There’s another angle on Halloween that many are unaware of some 500 years later.
Halloween’s history is shrouded in some of the same mystery and confusion the holiday is known for celebrating. Some historians claim the origin is really in pre-Christian harvest festivals among pagans, and that the occasion was later Christianized when the gospel spread through the Roman Empire nearly two millennia ago. It may be the case that things started pagan (as with all of us!), but it may be that we Christians have let unbelieving historians cloud the true origins of observing October 31.
All Hallows’ Eve
One thing that is clear is where the name comes from—and that it is Christian. The English Halloween is short for “All Hallows’ Eve,” the night before the November 1 Christian feast of All Saints (Hallows) Day.
As for trick-or-treating, some claim that marking All Hallows’ Eve may have originated as just such an occasion to “trick” Satan, the most prideful of all creatures, by giving him what is most offensive to his arrogance: mockery. As Luther would say, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him for he cannot bear scorn.” That prideful devil.
Mocking the Devil
In “Concerning Halloween,” James Jordan explains the thinking behind it: “to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. . . . [T]he idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us.” Jordan continues,
Thus, the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. For this reason, Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.
As for kids playing dress-up, “the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes.” According to Jordan, celebrating All Hallows’ Eve started as “the joking mockery of heathendom by Christian people”—which many historians would take issue with, no doubt.
Famous First Thesis
Moving beyond the date, and looking at what Luther wrote, we see that the truth of his first thesis would reverberate throughout his lifetime, even finding expression in his last words.
The first thesis reads,
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.
All of the Christian life is repentance. Turning from sin and trusting in the good news that Jesus saves sinners aren’t merely a one-time inaugural experience but the daily substance of Christianity. The gospel is for every day and every moment. Repentance is to be the Christian’s continual posture.
Famous Last Words
Almost 30 years later, on February 18, 1546, Luther’s last words, written on a piece of scrap paper, echoed the humble theme of his first thesis:
We are beggars! This is true.
From first thesis to last words, Luther lived at the foot of the cross, where our rebellious condition meets with the beauty of God’s lavish grace in the gospel of his Son—a gospel deep enough to cover all the little and massive flaws of a beggar like Luther and beggars like us.
For All the Saints
Because of God’s grace in and through Luther, All Hallows’ Eve is now both an occasion to call to mind Jesus’s triumph over Satan and his minions with a bloody cross and empty tomb, as well as a day to thank God especially for the Scriptures and the blessed reforms launched by imperfect saints like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and many more nameless visionaries.
Portrait by Drew Blom (2012).