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A Mighty Fortress

Greetings, saints of Trinity!

This Sunday we begin the final season of the church year, running from Halloween to Advent, which is variously called the Kingdom Season, the Thanksgiving Season, or the All Saints season. The name Halloween comes from All Hallow’s Eve, or the night before All Saints Day. This day, October 31, is not only the beginning of the celebration of All Saints, but also Reformation Day, for it was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, launching a worldwide Reformation of the church.

This Sunday, in commemoration of Luther, we will sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” First published in 1529 with Luther’s lyrics and his own music, “A Mighty Fortress” became the anthem of the Reformation and is Luther’s most beloved hymn. It has been translated multiple times into English, the most common version by Frederick Hedge. In this Rector’s Report, I’d like to reflect briefly on each stanza of the hymn.

The hymn opens as a loose paraphrase of Psalm 46, drawing upon the idea of God as a “mighty fortress,” a source of strength in the midst of the tumult of the world:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing
Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate
On earth is not his equal.

Luther expands on Psalm 46, however, by identifying the world’s tumult with “our ancient foe,” which is to say, Satan. Like a good movie, Luther introduces the antagonist early on, setting up a tension that will drive the coming story. The second verse situates us in this story, stuck between God and Satan, but with Jesus “on our side.”

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he.
Lord Sabaoth his Name, from age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.

The failure of human “striving” corresponds with Luther’s doctrine of grace; we cannot be saved of “our own strength.” Rather, we depend on Christ, the one chosen from before the foundation of the world, to “win the battle” for us.

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us
We will not fear for God hath willed, his truth to triumph through us
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

In Christ “we will not fear” the many devils of this world, for even the “prince of darkness” is doomed on account of the incarnate Word of God. You see, Satan could not believe that a mere human being, a “little word,” would triumph over him. Yet this “little word” was the perfect Son of God, who “fell” Satan when he was “raised” on the cross.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever.

The hymn concludes with a defiant proclamation of the eternal reign of Christ. We who believe therefore have constant access to the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the spirit, which enable us to persevere even through suffering or persecution. Thus, in service to the truth, we may freely give up “goods” or “kindred” or even “this mortal life.” For we know that in Christ and “his Kingdom” we will receive all these back again many times over.

In Christ -