April 5, 2015 I went to the Easter Vigil Mass at the cathedral in Mainz. It was the first time I had ever seen the place full: every seat taken, people standing in the isles, kneeling in the side chapels. I sat high up on the steps at the back of the nave–the only free spot I could find. Some two thousand people around me, I calculated. And I thought, If this really was the people of God, if these all were really men and women seeking to live each day in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, all the complications of organized religion aside, what a power that would have. But Germany is a secular country, and even the believers are fallen.
The service began in blackness. How is it possible that such a crowd can be so silent? Even in the darkness, you can feel the vastness of the cathedral around you. Great stone buttresses like the trunks of trees, high gothic arches receding into black. It’s an eerie and pregnant space. I think of all the scenes in German literature that play out against such a backdrop–the sermon and the single light in Kafka’s Trial, the organ music in Hesse’s Demian.
Here, suddenly, a voice in the darkness: Tonight, death dies. Darkness falls away before the power of Light. Behold the Lamb who was slain, behold the King, the Redeemer of the world who comes clothed in light as in a robe. And the procession begins–the Mädchenchor (Girls’ Choir), altar boys, the Kardinal flanked by officiants bearing the insignia of church and city. At the front, a single candle lit from the fire in the courtyard outside. Light slowly spreading–first to the candles in the archways, then on to the steps leading up to the altar, then to the thousands of candles in the audience. From where I am sitting, from above, it looks as if the congregation is lit from within. Verklärung. Transfiguration.
Mädchenchor and organ–pure, uncanny music. But when the congregation sings, the entire building resounds. They can hear us in the streets. Two thousand voices: Do you deny Satan and the powers of Darkness? I deny. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who in this night conquered Death and Darkness and who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty? I believe. Amen.
The service lasts for three hours. The feeling of release, of lightness, when the mass is dismissed is immense. The bells are ringing midnight; it’s clear and cold. Christus ist auferstanden. Christ is risen.
On Easter morning, the sun is shining. Aesthetically, the mass in the cathedral is the carbon-copy of last night’s–sunshine through stained glass, undisturbed joy, incense rising to the heavens. The officiants are wearing embroidered robes of pale gold. No more eerie Mädchenchor–there’s a full choir and orchestra, rows of trumpets.
Oh death, where is your victory? Oh grave, where is your sting? Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Holy Holy Holy Lord God of hosts. The heavens and the earth are full of your glory.
The service closes with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
Afterwards, I think: This is why, no matter how far I may yet turn from traditional piety in my life, I will never, ever be able to denounce Religion fully, to wish it away, to pretend that it never existed and has no power. There is such beauty and wonder in this, such majesty, and the world needs more of that. Now the earth was formless and empty and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the deep; what was dead will now live; the Kingdom and the Glory and the Power forever and ever, amen–there is such a majesty and power in those words, and in the Story behind them. Religion as a maker of Myth, of beauty and reverence and art–there will always, always be a place for that.
After the service in Mainz, the streets are full of people. I walk back home along the Rhine Promenade, and there are children everywhere and picnics and champagne. Wir feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn, denn wir sind selber auferstanden. We celebrate the resurrection of the Lord because we ourselves have arisen. Goethe, Faust.