Chapel at the Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Chapel at the Wartburg Castle
Location: Eisenach, Germany
Date of visit: Saturday, 24 August 2019, 6:00pm

The building

The Wartburg is a castle founded in 1067, sitting on a rocky crag at an elevation 410 meters (1,350 feet), overlooking the city of Eisenach. The main building is the so-called Palas, a Romanesque structure built in the 12th century, which contains large halls for dining, assemblies and festivals. The chapel was added to the Palas around 1320. In 1999 the Wartburg was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

The church

St Elizabeth of Thuringia came to the Wartburg in 1221 as a 14-year old bride. She became renowned for her acts of charity for the poor and suffering. She established a hospital below the Wartburg, at which she personally cared for the patients. Martin Luther was here in protective custody from May 1521 until March 1522, disguised with a beard and long hair, pretending to be ‘Knight George.’ He had a room on the north side of the castle, where he translated the New Testament from Greek into German within 11 weeks. Luther’s translation made the Bible understandable for ordinary people and has shaped the Reformation and the German language; conversational German contains countless words or phrases that Luther coined for his translation. Regarding the chapel: When Luther was at the Wartburg he wrote a letter in which he expressed his disapproval of a priest who held daily private masses at the chapel without a congregation. Since 1852 it was been a tradition to hold services at the Wartburg chapel about once a month, beginning on May 4, the date on which Luther arrived at the Wartburg, until October 31, Reformation Day. Also there are services at Christmas and New Year’s.

The neighborhood

Eisenach is a town in Thuringia, almost geographically dead center in today’s reunified Germany. Johann Sebastian Bach was born and baptized in Eisenach. The town also played an important role in the lives of Johann Pachelbel and Georg Philipp Telemann. The Wartburg provided a setting for Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. In the early 20th century, Eisenach became a major automobile manufacturing centre; BMW built motorcycles here, and during World War II the factories turned out military equipment. After the war, Eisenach lay in communist East Germany, and the old BMW plant was retooled to produce the boxy and underpowered, but rugged and reliable, Wartburg motorcar. After reunification in 1990, Opel took over the plant. Since reunification, Eisenach has become a popular tourist destination. The Bachhaus, a 15th century building near the spot where Bach was born, is now a museum with a collection of musical instruments and household furniture from Bach’s time. The Lutherhaus, where Luther boarded while at school as a teenager, has been restored to what it must have looked like in Luther’s day. The Reuter-Wagner Museum includes an extensive collection of Wagner memorabilia, including his death mask.

The cast

The liturgy was led by the administrative pastor of the Evangelical-Lutheran Congregation of Eisenach, which encompasses six regular places of worship, including the Wartburg chapel. The sermon was given by a second minister who is a specialist for Jewish-Christian relations, which is this year’s theme for the services at the Wartburg.

What was the name of the service?

Gottesdienst (Service of God), including the blessing of a couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.

How full was the building?

About 50, only a few empty seats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A person handing out hymn books gave us a friendly nod.

Was your pew comfortable?

The back supports of the chairs offered two uncomfortable possibilities: either one could sit rigidly upright, making the back support unnecessary; or one could lean back to rest, causing the spine to curve into an unhealthy posture.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

first there was a lot of loud chatter, with some people calling out to one other across the chapel. Three minutes before the service, everyone became quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Evangelisches Gesangbuch, the version for the Lutheran Churches of Thuringia and Bavaria.

What musical instruments were played?

Small organ with 17 stops.

Did anything distract you?

At the most intimate moment of the service, when a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary was receiving a prayer and a blessing, a smartphone rang out loudly and clearly.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The service was a sung Lutheran liturgy. The atmosphere of the service was calm and cordial. The liturgist spoke with an unhurried tempo, which made it easy to follow his words. There were seven hymns/songs, some of which were challenging, but the core of the congregation was made up of experienced worshippers who carried the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 — The preacher gave a meditative type of sermon, in which he encouraged his listeners to reflect upon certain aspects of the gospel reading. However, the message did not seem to have a connected line of thought.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was about the gospel reading from Mark about a scribe who asked Jesus to name the highest commandment of the Torah. Jesus’ answer began with: ‘Hear, Israel. The Lord is our God; the Lord is the one. And you shall love the Lord your God…’ These words are spoken by Jews every morning and evening. For many, especially Jewish martyrs, they have been the final words at the end of life. Are these words of faithfulness or words of regret? What does it mean to love God and neighbour as oneself? It is not completely clear what love of God means; it could be considered difficult, but also easy. Augustine said that to love God means to enjoy him without using him. To hear (‘Hear, Israel’) is also the condition for loving God. Everything that happens in life can and should contribute to loving God. Love your neighbour – he is like you.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Heavenly was the location of the service: the Wartburg is like an island high in the sky with a dizzying precipitous drop on all sides, offering views in all directions of the mountainous, thickly wooded Thuringian forest. Another heavenly feature: at this chapel there was no need for microphones. For the first time in ages I experienced a service in which the natural human voice could be heard.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

In a letter that Luther wrote at the Wartburg, he stated that he was having ‘a thousand battles with Satan.’ At one of these battles Luther allegedly drove the devil away by throwing a pot of ink at him, producing an ink stain on the wall that remained visible for centuries (with some discrete help). So if the devil has appeared repeatedly in a nearby section of the castle, I guess I was not far from the ‘other place.’

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

It would have been pointless: this was not a normal parish congregation, but a more or less random collection.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — This ancient chapel is loaded with atmosphere. The pulpit looked like it was about 300 years old. The altar was presumably 700 years old.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

As the service ended, the sun was setting, giving the Wartburg and the surrounding forest a golden glow. The steep drive from the castle down through the darkening forest into Eisenach was enchanting. In the city there was a demonstration, with banners proclaiming ‘Refugees welcome!’

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