There and Back Again: A Pastor’s Sabbatical Adventure #10

Wittenberg Part 2

I have visited Wittenberg 4 times (I believe) before the week there with our Youth Group and Friends, but it was very meaningful to not just visit for a day or an overnight but to actually live there for a week…so that the Castle Church (where Luther nailed (or at least posted (or at least associated)) his 95 Theses on October 31st 1517 that got the Reformation ball rolling) and the City Church (where he regularly worshipped and preached) became not just iconic images but the regular landmarks by which I navigated my way around town.  Historic Wittenberg is not a particularly big place and except when you are inside there isn’t really anywhere in town that isn’t in view of one or both – and the Youth Hostel that we stayed in is actually part of the reconstructed castle of Frederick the Wise to which the Castle Church is attached. So it was almost like the most iconic symbol of the Reformation was our home for a week.

Along with that our morning and evening worship services alternated between the Castle Church and the City Church, and so they became not just places I visited and observed from “the outside” as a tourist, but places where I heard the Word proclaimed, prayed and sang about the meaning of life and faith. The Castle Church where Martin Luther (right in front of the pulpit) and Phillip Melanchthon’s (not 10 feet to the left of Luther) bodies are buried (and where Barlach’s “Schwebende Engel” hovers over the aisle); and the City Church with the amazing altarpiece and triptych of Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen and the meaning of the Reformation by Lucas Cranach the Elder (a print of which hangs in my office at Good Shepherd) became not just museums I’ve visited but living, breathing worship spaces for me/us where God has sought me through worship.

Not unrelated to all that, walking the main street of Wittenberg that Luther and Melanchthon and Cranach and the others walked so many times; visiting once more Luther’s room at the Wartburg Castle where Luther lived and hid out for 10 months (and translated the New Testament into the language of the (German) people); and standing at the altar in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where Luther celebrated his first Holy Communion I experienced Luther in a new way – as a person not so different from (you and) me. It came into focus for me in particular at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt when the pastor told us that the stained glass windows with their images of parrots and lions and roses (that some say were the basis for the seal of Martin Luther – the Luther Rose) were the same ones that were there in Luther’s time…..that just as we meditate Sunday by Sunday on the architecture and symbols of Good Shepherd…..these are the images and symbols Luther lived with and meditated on….and that the stone altar in the front of the worship space was the same one that had been there in Luther’s time…..the one at which he so fearfully celebrated his first Holy Communion.

I have been standing behind altars and looking out at congregations as I’ve celebrated Holy Communion (at times fearfully) for almost 30 years. After our worship at the Augustinian monastery I walked up to that altar and as I touched it looked out at the congregation as Luther would have and I felt this new (or perhaps renewed) connection to Luther. He was no longer just Luther the legend, but Luther the person and Luther the pastor.

I say “renewed” because it was reading and writing a term paper on psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s book “Young Man Luther” (that is deservedly panned by historians for its inaccuracies) – which spends about a whole chapter on Luther’s fear and trembling when celebrating Holy Communion for the first time – for a seminar course in college that brought Luther as a real person alive to me for the first time. Among other things Erikson is famous for his writings about the “identity crisis” we all have to come to terms with as we move from child to adult in “Young Man Luther” he portrays Luther’s search for a gracious God as he moved through young manhood in those terms. Although Erikson does not get all the Luther facts right, I believe he still does a meaningful job of bringing Luther to life as a real person – one that I could identify with. That has shaped the course of my faith journey in significant ways including my decision to become a pastor…..and I felt a sense of renewal and return to that experience through my participation in the Luther500 event.