Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Location: Eisenach, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 January 2023, 10:00am
Built around 1180 as a Romanesque basilica, with three naves divided by rounded arches and pillars, St Nicholas is the oldest parish church of Eisenach. (1180 is also the year in which Eisenach is first mentioned in a document.) Since the church served tradespeople, it was named after their patron saint: Nicholas. It also became a cloister church for a Benedictine monastery – the oldest of the seven monasteries of Eisenach – which was built adjacently. It was damaged heavily during the Peasants Revolt of 1524. Restoration projects led to a re-dedication of the church in 1887. The altar, depicting the burial of Jesus, originated in the 16th century. The baptismal font is older than the church.
There was no congregational newsletter at the display shelves, nor was there a greeter at the entrance, and I could not find any person who could be asked about information. According to the website, the Nikolaikirche is one of the seven churches of the parish of Eisenach-Gerstungen, which has at least seven choirs, a brass band and an orchestra. This parish has offerings for seniors, for families and for children, a Bible study, counselling services, religious instruction in schools, and confirmation classes.
The church is in the Eastern part of the old city, facing the Karlsplatz (Karl’s Plaza). Adjacent to the church on one side is a deaconess house, which offers a Bible study for the parish. On the other side is the St Nicholas Gate, built in the 12th century, which is the only surviving city gate. Monks and nuns were driven out of the city through this gate during the ‘iconoclasm’ in April 1525. In the center of the park is a memorial to Martin Luther, created by Adolf von Donndorf in 1895. Luther attended the Latin School in Eisenach as a pupil and translated the New Testament into understandable German at the Wartburg Castle, which overlooks the town. Luther said: ‘Almost all of my relatives live in Eisenach, and I’m known to them there; no other city knows me better.’ One of his relatives, Konrad Hutter, was a verger at St Nicholas. Eisenach is also the birth place of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was baptized at the nearby St George Church.
During the regime of the German Democratic Republic, the Karlsplatz was called the Plaza of German-Soviet-Friendship. When I visited East Germany for the first time in 1975, my first stop was at a bank on this plaza, at which I was required to exchange 25 ‘west’ marks for 25 ‘east’ marks for each day of my visit, which could not be taken out of the country.
A parish minister led the service and preached. The Chapel Choir of Princeton University sang in the service and their organist played for the entire service. A minister of Princeton University participated in the intercessions and blessings.
What was the name of the service?Gottesdienst (Divine Service) with the Princeton University Chapel Choir.
How full was the building?
The central nave was two-thirds full, with about 80 people. The choir, consisting of about 50 singers, sat in a side nave. The congregation sat towards the front – not towards the back, as is habitual – probably in order to be a close as possible to the choir. Only one sister from the neighboring deaconess house was present, which is presumably an indication of the dwindling numbers of Lutheran deaconesses.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, because it was not ancient, and allowed plenty of leg room.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The first impression was that the church was not frigid, but comfortably warm. Churches in Germany are not being heated this winter because of the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Normally, the congregation meets in a side chapel during the winter in order to conserve energy, but because of the visiting choir the full church was reopened for this service. As we entered, the choir was rehearsing a part of the liturgy, singing an understandable German. There were subdued conversations among the worshipers. Hanging in the middle of the altar area was a large, brightly lighted Herrnhuter Star. These stars decorate probably every church in Germany from the beginning of Advent to the end of the season of Epiphany.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Let us celebrate worship in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Evangelisches Gesangbuch: the specialized version for the Lutheran Churches of Thuringia and Bavaria. A sheet was handed out which enabled the congregation to speak the psalm for this Sunday responsively, and the opening prayer in unison. An ‘Epiphany-Kyrie’, to be sung responsively, was also on the sheet, but was not used.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, built in 1893, and renovated in 1937/38 by the Walcker/Ludwigsburg company, has three keyboards and 48 stops.
Did anything distract you?
As I looked at the choir, I noticed that some were wearing protective masks, and I let myself become distracted by counting them (5). I admire the discipline of these mask wearers. Otherwise, no one in the congregation wore a mask, as Germany has reached a level of immunity which allows this mask-free freedom in churches. Another small detail distracted my attention. The altar antependium was green, which was the regulation for the Sundays after Epiphany before the liturgical reform of 2018. White is now the color for the entire season of Epiphany. Call me pedantic, but I do appreciate the symbolism of white as the color of divine glory, as revealed in the transfiguration event, which is the Gospel reading on the final Sunday of Epiphany in the calendar of the Evangelische Kirche. The revelation of God’s glory in Jesus is the continuous theme on the Sundays of Epiphany in Germany. So, I do like to see white.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service had a typical Lutheran order without communion. Several parts of the liturgy were sung acapella, with the pastor leading and the congregation responding. It was assumed that all people in attendance knew the liturgy by heart. The two readings, epistle and Gospel, were in German and English, with two choir members stepping forward to read. The Gospel was read by lay people. In order to give the choir room for its 4 anthems, only one hymn was sung. The congregation sat most of the time, but stood for the Gospel, creed, intercessions, Lord’s Prayer and blessing(s). The intercessions and blessing were in German and English: a minister of Princeton University participated in the Intercessory prayers and contributed a blessing. At the blessing, the parish pastor used the traditional Aaronic formulation: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you…’ It has become widespread in the Evangelische Kirche to replace ‘Lord’ with ‘God’ in this blessing. The Lord’s Prayer was spoken in German and English simultaneously. I started out in German, but when I heard the choir speaking it in English I switched languages.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — He provided interesting historical background to the theme of his sermon and also gave lucid contemporary illustrations of his message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The basis of the sermon was the epistle reading, a section of Romans, chapter 1, focusing on the proclamation, ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Martin Luther struggled to interpret this justification by faith, because he understood divine justice to be a punishing retribution which required a person to compensate for all sins. But then he made the liberating discovery that God simply accepts as his child anyone who puts their trust in him in the name of Jesus, not requiring recompense for sins. The contrast to this gospel is the message ‘you are not good enough’, which was conveyed, for example, by Elon Musk to Twitter employees and had a massively destructive effect. That single parents seldom seek baptism for their children might also be an indication that the church is inadvertently conveying the message to them, ‘you are not good enough’. However, God’s grace, revealed in Jesus, tells us unconditionally: you are good enough in the eyes of God. So, put your trust in God and let him adopt you as his child.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The highlight of the service was the choir anthem Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich, sung in German, by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. The text was formulated by Martin Luther in 1529: ‘Grant us peace by means of your grace, O Lord God, in our time. There is no one who could fight for us, except you alone, our God.’ The choir sang this prayer for peace with an emotional intensity which touched the heart and produced moist eyes in a least one worshiper.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The obvious intensity of Verleih uns Frieden – ‘Grant us peace’ – reflected the ruthless war in Ukraine, which has become a hell on earth.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
When the service ended, I did not go to the back, where people were exiting, but went towards the choir members, who were also preparing to leave, to express appreciation for their singing before they were all gone.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee or anything else.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — In this picturesque, ancient church, I immediately felt at home and ready to concentrate on worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The contrast between outside and inside: outside, the temperature was at a freezing level, Eisenach was covered with fresh snow, and the streets looked deserted, except for dog owners; inside, the sanctuary was warm, inviting, full of artistic features and had a choir speaking my native language.