500 Years of the 95 Theses Celebrated in Germany

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Magdeburg Cathedral, one of the places where Martin Luther spread his influence. Photo taken in 2011

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BERLIN/ERFURT/ LUTHERSTADT-WITTENBERG- You see me, and we see you. The slogan for the 36th annual Day of Christianity (Kirchentag), which ended yesterday with an open-air church service on the field along the Elbe River in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg.  Located between Leipzig and Berlin, Wittenberg was the central stage for Martin Luther, who was a professor of theology 500 years ago- a revolutionary who posted the 95 Theses on the doors of the church in the city with its present-day population of over 30,000 inhabitants. It is this city, where the two-day event commemorated the historic event, which reshaped Christianity and created the church that still bears its name.  Over 400,000 visitors participated in the four-day event, which started in Berlin, but also featured regional events in cities where Luther had its strongest influence: Leipzig, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Eisleben, Halle and even Magdeburg had festivities from Thursday to Saturday for Christians, tourists, families and people wanting to know more about Luther and his interpretation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Wittenberg alone, roughly 120,000 visitors converged onto the field along the Elbe River and at the city center, to take part in the evening light show and open air reflections on Saturday, followed by an open-air church service on Sunday. Despite the sweltering heat, people had an opportunity to listen to the sermons as well as the discussion forum, one of which involved newly-elected German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who took over for Joachim Gauck in February this year.

In Berlin, where over 245,000 visitors took part in the festivities, especially at Brandenburg Gate, the events marked the welcoming back of former US President Barack Obama, who, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticized Donald Trump’s policy of isolation with his plan for building the Wall to Mexico and isolating the country from its international obligations.

And as for the regional places, according to reports by MDR, the numbers were much lower than expected. In Erfurt, Jena and Weimar alone, only 42,000 visitors attended the events from Thursday to Saturday. However, the events were overshadowed by warm, summer weather, the Handel festival that began in Halle, the relegation soccer game between Jena and Cologne, where the former won the first of two games, and lastly, the Luther events at the aforementioned places in Berlin and Wittenberg.

This was noticeable during my visit in Erfurt on Friday with my wife and daughter. There, despite having over a dozen booths, podium discussions in several churches, tours of the churchs’ chapels and steeples as well as several plays and concerts and a pilgrimage from Stotternheim to the city center, the majority of the visitors took advantage of the beautiful weather for other activities.  It had nothing to do with attempts to recruit and convert people to become Lutheran on the spot. One should not interpret Luther and his teachings like this. In fact at a few sites that feature plays and musicals for children, such as Luther and Katharina as well as the Luther Express where children learned about Jesus during each of the four seasons, the layout and preparations were simple but well thought out with no glorifying features and some informative facts presented, which attracted a sizable number of people in the audience (between 50 and 60).

The lack of numbers might have to do with the fact that despite Christianity dominating Germany at 59%, only 28% consists of Lutherans in general. In the US, over 46% consists of Protestants, of which 26% are Evangelicals. 71% of the population are Christians. Given the low number of people belonging to the church, the United Lutheran Church Association of Germany (EKD) and other organizations worked together to make the Luther festival informative, attracting people from different denominations so that they know about Luther’s legacy both in Germany as well as above. It doesn’t necessarily mean that membership is obligatory. Much of the population are sceptical about the beliefs in Jesus, which is one of the reasons of why a quarter of the 41% are aethesists or agnostics. This leads to the question of why Christ is not important to them while at the same time why people in Germany elect to join the church. This question I had touched on in a conversation with one of the pastors of a local church, which will be brought up in a later article.

Nevertheless, when summarizing the events of this weekend, it was deemed a success in many ways. It provided visitors with a glimpse of Luther’s legacy, especially in Wittenberg, where his 95 Thesis was the spark that started the fire and spread to many cities in the region. It also brought together friends and strangers alike, Christian and non-Christian to remember the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Lutheran Church we know today, branches included. Exhibits on Luther can be found in Wittenberg but also at the places where Luther played a key role. For more, please click here to see where you can visit the sites.

You can also read up on the pilgrimage of six people, who marched on Lutherstadt-Wittenberg for the events by foot, bike or even boat, camping along the way. Each pair started their tour from Erfurt, Eisleben and Dessau-Rosslau, respectively. Here you can find their stories.

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