Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Location: Gotha, Germany
Date of visit: Wednesday, 6 January 2010, 7:30pm
The Margarethenkirche was originally a Romanesque Basilica, first documented in 1064. From 1494 until 1531 it was restructured into a late-Gothic hall church. The pastor of this church joined the Lutheran Reformation in 1522/23. The church was burned-out twice and was damaged in the Second World War. Another restructuring of the church was accomplished after the reunification of Germany in 1990. A glass wall was positioned under the organ loft, creating rooms for winter worship services and congregational activities. The church is open daily and visitors are offered coffee behind this glass partition.
Before the reunification of Germany, Gotha was part of the German Democratic Republic, which means that the Christian community endured 40 years of atheist oppression and propaganda, which has left its marks: Christians are a small minority (about 10 per cent of the population) and the vast majority has no relationship to a church. The congregational newsletter reveals that this church in affiliation with neighbouring churches offers an impressive variety of groups, choirs, concerts and worship experiences. There is a special emphasis on reaching out to children.
Gotha is a small city of 52,000 in the middle of Germany just north of the Thuringian Forest mountains. It is one of the oldest habitations in the state of Thuringia, first mentioned in 775. The most prominent feature of this city is the Palace of Friedenstein, the former ducal palace, built in 1643-55, Germany’s oldest early Baroque palace.
The pastor, Herr Pfarrer Martin Hundertmark, delivered the sermon and also sang with the choir. Music was provided by the Bach Choir Gotha (I counted 56 singers), supplemented by the Lebensgeister (Life Spirits), a children's choir (20 singers), and the ThringBarock instrumental group. Soloists were Frau Julia Kirchner and Herr Nico Eckert. All was under the direction of Herr Jens Goldhardt, musical director, with Herr Thomas Kahle presiding at the organ.
What was the name of the service?"I stand here at your manger," Cantate worship service on the feast of Epiphany. Featured was part VI of JS Bach's Christmas Oratorio, the part which is intended for Epiphany. Despite the fact that Epiphany is supposed to be the crowning finale of the season of Christmas, Protestant churches in Germany do not offer worship services then (unless it happens to be on a Sunday). It was a rare treat to find a church that not only celebrated Epiphany, but did so with special music
How full was the building?
The nave of the church was packed; I estimate that 200 to 250 people were present. The only empty seats were those with no view of the altar area.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we entered we were given a folded sheet with the order of worship, which included the hymns and the text of the oratorio. We also received a small Christmas candle with a wax protector. The entrance area was crowded, and the woman passing out programs and candles said to those entering, "I don't know which of you are worshipers or members of the choir!" Apparently members of the choir were not supposed to take a candle so that they could hold their music with both hands. I found this greeting refreshingly candid.
Was your pew comfortable?
The church pews were padded, and thus comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was striking. The church was dark; only the altar area was lighted. A Christmas tree with straw stars, red ribbons and white electric lights was at the front. Hanging above the altar area was a large, lighted Herrnhuter star. There was a hum of conversation in the congregation. As people entered, there were quiet exchanges of greeting among people who knew one another. The people behind us were trying to figure out if they were at a concert or a worship service. Since they did not have to pay an entrance fee, they finally decided that it must be a service and that they would thus put something extra in the collection plate.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The first words of the service consisted of a poem (which might have been the first line of a hymn): "Have you seen the star?"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books were necessary, as the worship program contained all the hymns the congregation would be singing. The liturgical parts of the service did not have musical notes so that only those who were familiar with the liturgy could sing along.
What musical instruments were played?
The singing of the hymns was accompanied by the organist. For the Bach oratorio there was an orchestra of 12 musicians, which included trumpets and tympani.
Did anything distract you?
The only distraction in this well-organised service came at the start of the sermon when the electric lights of the nave were turned on. The pastor began by announcing Jesus as the light of the world and said to us: "Let us be part of this light by sharing the peace light of Bethlehem." He descended the pulpit and lit a candle from a flame under the Christmas tree: a flame that had literally been brought from Bethlehem to Germany and been dispersed throughout the country. This light was distributed by the choir children, who lit the candles of the worshipers. This festive act would have been more effective if the nave had remained dark. Turning on the lights was completely unnecessary and it spoiled the intended symbolism, namely, the spreading of the light of Christ into the darkness. After the distribution the electric lights were turned off again, but something of the enchanting atmosphere had been lost.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was formal and liturgical, but not stiff. The liturgy was sung by the choir, who sang the opening words of liturgical sentences and also led the congregation in the a cappella responses. This liturgical singing was richly satisfying.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Hundertmark was easy to listen to because he had a natural, unassuming style of speaking. He offered solid content and his sermon did justice to Epiphany, for which I was grateful.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The many small lights in the congregation make up a big light. There are conflicts in the world that seem to negate the light of Christ. Christians are called to protect the light of Christ and take it into dark places. On Christmas Eve we celebrate that God took on our poverty in order to bind himself with us and to remove all barriers between him and us. On Epiphany God revealed himself to the Magi, which was a meeting with the world. A new day dawned for the earth. When one can see a brother or sister in the face of every person, there is no more darkness.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Hearing part VI of the Christmas Oratorio was heavenly. It is striking that Bach used the melody of a Good Friday hymn (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded") to open and close his Christmas Oratorio. With this melody he proclaims the message that the incarnation did not culminate in Bethlehem but on Golgotha. Bach transformed this passion chorale into a triumphant Easter hymn, using trumpets and tympani to celebrate God's victory over all deadly enemies. Christmas, Good Friday and Easter come together in this victorious finale, providing a foretaste of eternal glory.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This service was so magnificent that it made me realise that I am not yet ready to sing with the angels. I usually don't worry about how well or how poorly I sing in church, but on this evening my own singing voice seemed scratchy, nasal, gasping and just inadequate within the setting of this service. During the singing of the hymns I felt the gap between heaven and the "other place" in myself.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was not possible to hang around in the narrow entrance area looking lost. There was a conglomeration of visitors and choir members at the back of the church trying to sort themselves out or converse with one another. Anyone loitering around would have been blocking the flow of people trying to leave.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no after-service coffee, but that would be asking too much after such a lovingly prepared worship experience. In any case, there would not have been enough room to accommodate all the visitors.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It would be a privilege to belong to this Christian community. It is impressive that a relatively small congregation could offer a Cantate worship service of this caliber on Epiphany. An East German church musician informed me that there is a solidarity among singers and musicians in the former GDR; that they are ready and willing to travel large distances and perform for a lower salary than usual in order that fine music can be offered on festive occasions.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. This Epiphany celebration embodied everything that I hope to experience in a worship service: respect for tradition, an unpretentious proclamation of the gospel, all generations involved, creativity, reverence, cheerfulness, quality music.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
There are two chorales in part VI of the Christmas Oratorio. The first one is called "Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier"("I stand here at your manger"). The children joined in for the first time, and their voices could be clearly heard singing the moving words of this chorale. It was an exquisite moment that created moist eyes among the listeners. I will not only remember this moment in a week, but forever.