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Martin Luther: A Reformer, Theologian and Bible Translator, Part 4

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Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Wittenberg Altarpiece, predella (Marienkirche, Wittenberg, Germany; Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library/G-etty Images)

Here is an oil painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1547, entitled “The Wittenberg Altarpiece“. The congregation’s eyes are fixated upon the crucified Christ, as Luther’s outstretched arm single out Christ and his other hand rest on the Word of God. Cranach tells us that the success of the preacher is measured by how much the preacher points to Christ in his preaching by upholding the Word of God.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Lucas Cranach was a loyal friend of Luther and who in 1525, stood as his Best Man when Luther married his life long partner Katharina von Bora. One of the reasons for the success of the reformation was that Luther took the reformation to his own home. Both Luther and Katharina had become a model for the rest of German families, in not only their church reformation work but also in bringing the reformation into their family.

Cranach depicting Luther and his preaching ministry shows the Crucified Christ hangs in isolation at the middle of the assembly. The congregation’s eyes are fixated upon the crucified Christ. At the end of Luther’s outstretched arm two fingers single out Christ and the elder Cranach, as the two men search out the other in and through the crucified Christ. Prominent in the foreground scene is his son Johannes, called Hans, the reformer’s firstborn and Cranach’s godson. Directly behind the widow Luther’s left shoulder the viewer sees another turned head with bright, popping eyes. It is the appealing round face of a young woman A good guess is Luther’s prematurely deceased daughter, Magdalena.

Luther lost his daughter Magdalena prematurely. Magdalena’s sudden death at thirteen, in 1542, was so distressing a blow to Luther and Catherine. Likewise, Cranachs’ sudden loss of their eldest son, Hans, at twenty-four in 1537, five years earlier made these two men share pains together. The two of them being shattered by their children’s deaths, attempted to console each other, but all of their efforts were in vain. For a while, Luther claimed to have given up on God. Writes a stricken Luther:

The force of our natural love is so great that we are unable to do this [“thank God”] without crying and grieving in our hearts [and] experiencing death in ourselves…. The features, the words, the movement of our living and dying daughter, who was so very obedient and respectful, remain engraved in our hearts. Even the death of Christ … cannot take all this away, as it should. You [the unnamed friend], therefore, must please give thanks to God in our place. {Source: The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation by Steven E. Ozment }

The painting underscores Luther’s Christ-centered preaching ministry. Christ-centeredness in preaching, as I see it, has two-fold meaning. The first one is that our weekly assembly as the church of Christ must explicitly/unequivocally proclaim Christ: the incarnate, crucified, risen and returning Lord. It means that we eschew to treat Christ as the backdrop for everything else we emphasize. In other words, Christ is not like salt and pepper we add to the steak. To extend the metaphor, Christ is the steak not merely a seasoning. If what we are excited about is our wealth, health, and success, but Christ is something a seasoning that we throw here and there,  we are man-centered and Christ is the means to our end. Of course we do not think we are doing that. We think we are preaching Christ. Because we all are not aware of our blind spot, which is self-deception. The songs that we sing, and the preaching of the word must contribute to and climax at Christ. I don’t mean that we simply repeat ‘Jesus Jesus…’ that would be to domesticate Him. But to unveil the meaning of Christ and his mission as we meet Sunday after Sunday. When we step out of the church concluding the service, the last word should be “we saw the glory of the Truine God through the Crucified Christ and the abiding Holy Spirit.”

Second, Christ centered-ness, means that He is the context for all that we do in the church. We do what we do because of Him, for Him and through Him. Hence, not only he is our message but he is sky of our world, dripping life and light and covering everything that we are and do. In this regard Luther’s painting teaches us the success of the church is measured by how much we point to Christ and portray the crucified Christ, and not by how popular we are.


© 2015, Samson Tilahun. All rights reserved.

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