Travelogue XXXVI: Ostern

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.

Travelogue XII: Mainzer Dom

640px-Gotisches_MaßwerkfensterIt’s no secret that I have some pretty significant ideological problems with the Catholic Church. But when it comes to aesthetics, I find it completely inescapable. No other religious tradition of my personal acquaintance does beauty so well. I’ve been in dozens of catholic churches across Germany, and the sheer power and loveliness of it all always takes me by surprise.

At the same time, though, I find the physical beauty of the buildings themselves deeply unnerving. This splendor, decadence, theatricality–it blurs the line between art and religion, between aesthetic and spiritual experience. I grew up in protestant New England, going to Sunday services in tiny white clapboard churches–functional, lovely in their own way, but entirely lacking in anything that might be described as gorgeous. There were no candles burning, no stained glass windows, no towering organ, no gothic vaults hazy with incense. Just straight-backed wooden pews, a piano, a plain pulpit–stark perhaps, but refreshingly straightforward, not plagued with questions about the role of decadence and art in religion. And somehow honest: the congregation is not wooed into belief by the power of beauty.

How different it is here in Germany, where I go to a mass in the Frauenkirche in Munich and think, This is as good as a Wagner opera. 

IMG_0553

IMG_0590

The cathedral in Mainz is one of the most stunning I have seen, and therefore also one of the most unnerving. It is sprawling, visible from almost anywhere in the old city, and dates originally back to 975AD. The building has been restored and rebuilt dozens of times since them, and features architectural components from nearly every Western stylistic period of the past millennium. Outside, there’s the marketplace and dozens of cafes and a really good H&M–inside, a whole separate, echo-y world of vaulted ceilings and stained glass.

I stand inside the main sanctuary, and I think, Who built this thing? Who paid for it all, who mined all that red stone and brought it here? So many centuries ago, in a tiny town of just a few thousand residents, what motivated those in power to dedicate so many lives and so much money to the Church? These cathedrals are the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke, really–equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped by aesthetics, politics, Zeitgeist, music. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.

Below, two of the entrances to the Mainzer Dom (Dom=cathedral).

IMG_0594

IMG_0608Inside. The main sanctuary. The painted side panels tell the story of the life of Jesus, with Latin descriptions underneath.

IMG_0622

IMG_0611Below, two of the many side chapels. The second chapel, with the very modern stained glass window, gate, and painting together with the traditional architecture, is a very common sight in Germany: after World War II, many churches were restored only partly to their original appearances, and thus feature this striking combination of old and new. 

IMG_0615

IMG_0597The amount of detail is staggering. 

IMG_0618

IMG_0600Alongside the focus on heaven and the Living God, the presence of death is heavily felt in the cathedrals I have been in. Skulls and skeletons are carved into many of the altarpieces and stone relief-work, and there is always a personified statue of Death somewhere. 

IMG_0605…But when the sun is out, the whole building is full of light. 

IMG_0596

Mainzer_Dom_01