Happy Reformation Day!

During my first year at my seminary in Chicago, the students got together for a celebration on October 31. But we weren’t celebrating Halloween, like the University of Chicago students in our neighborhood.

That’s right. We were celebrating Reformation Day like the nerds we were.

We watched the 2003 “Luther” movie and played Pin the Theses on the Church Door. We had pizza. It was a whole thing.

Even though we did that only once, this speaks to how important church history is to us theology students. Next year will be even more significant because it marks 500 years of Protestantism.

Life in the year 1517 was starkly different from our experiences today. Even so, the events of the Reformation shape our faith dramatically in 2016. Culturally and theologically, we worship and relate to each other and understand God in ways we never would have if the Reformation hadn’t happened. Now, the Ephesians passage “we are saved by grace, through faith, apart from works for Christ’s sake” is a basic element of belief for so many Christians.

Church history gives us a story that tells us who we are and how we got here. It’s not just the various schisms like the Reformation split that are worth knowing. Figures like Constantine and Augustine and Jan Hus speak to large-scale shifts in faith–what we believe and don’t believe and how that factors into other parts of our world.

Religious history gives depth to global shifts and brings clarity to historical events like wars, changes in national leadership and boundaries, political trends, and art such as literature and music. It’s not just a parallel history to secular events–it’s interwoven with all of humanity.

But back to today’s (non-Halloween) holiday. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, those of us in the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions can take this opportunity to assess how we see ourselves and what our commonalities are.

Ecumenism doesn’t have to entail a sacrificing of core values but it can give us challenging opportunities to serve and worship together. Knowing church history can guide us in finding that common ground.

Next year, when Protestants and especially Lutherans recognize the landmark anniversary, we’ll celebrate our faith tradition and the ideas we hold dear. Maybe next October, we can take that chance to apply that history and consider what the next 500 could bring.