Most Lutherans know the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” (words and music by Dr Martin Luther). People often refer to Luther’s hymn as “the hymn of the Reformation” or “the Battle hymn of the Reformation”.
But for us who are living through this 2020 COVID19 context, there is a profound message for us in the actual origin of Luther’s most famous hymn.
We know that “A Mighty Fortress” was published in a very early German hymnbook in 1533. The earliest appearance of the hymn is in the form of a “broadsheet” (single page) edition in 1528. Most scholars agree that Luther would have written the hymn somewhere between 1527 and 1528.
This points to an extraordinary context. In 1527, the plague hit Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg, and people fled the city, including pastors and students at the Wittenberg University. Luther wrote his famous paper, “Should a Christian Flee the Plague” at this time. Because Martin and Katie took in so many sick and dying people into their home during this plague, their house actually had to be quarantined when the plague had abated.
At the end of that same year, December 1527, Martin and Katie were blessed with a little daughter, Elizabeth, who was very sick from birth and sadly died only months later, in May 1528. This was a time of struggle for Luther.
That 1528 broadsheet copy of “A Mighty Fortress” had the title “A Hymn of Comfort.”
This famous “Hymn of the Reformation” could be referred to as a battle hymn, but not in the sense of fighting human enemies. It was a battle hymn in the sense, of the struggle we all know too well – against suffering and doubt in the midst of uncertain times – notably during a pandemic.
At the heart of Luther’s hymn is the Christ focus:
Christ Jesus, who is the “valiant one” who fights for me.
Christ Jesus who stands with me, when I am isolated or unsure.
Christ Jesus, who holds fast to me, in his “fortress” embrace.
Christ Jesus, who is not far but present, even closely in bread and wine, given and shed for the forgiveness of sin.
“A mighty fortress is our God” is a hymn of “Incarnational” spirituality. Luther drew on Psalm 46 when he wrote his hymn and I encourage you to read and meditate on that Psalm.
In this time of COVID19 in 2020, we are given words of faith to sing from Luther’s own journey through pandemic and uncertainty – bold words of the comfort of the love of God, showered upon us in the life and service of our incarnate Lord: Jesus Christ: “A mighty fortress is our God, A trusty shield and weapon, Our faithful helper in all need, our stay, whate’er may happen.”
Here are the words of the hymn for your reflection:
1 A mighty fortress is our God, A trusty shield and weapon,
Our faithful helper in all need, Our stay, whate’er may happen.
The old evil foe Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might Are his dread arms in fight;
On earth is not his equal.
2 With might of ours can naught be done, Soon were our fall effected;
But for us fights the valiant one Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye: Who is this? Christ Jesus it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord, And there’s none other God;
He holds the field for ever.
3 Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none; He’s judged, for e’er undone;
One little word can fell him.
4 The Word shall stand despite all foes – No thanks they for it merit –
For God is with us, and bestows His gifts and Holy Spirit.
And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife:
Though these all be gone, Yet have our foes not won;
The kingdom ours remaineth.