Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Proper Welcome

Last Sunday I needed to find a church. I'm in Europe so there's a lot of them around, all of incredible historic and architectural significance. I hope to sample each church around Bonn before I head out of here next year.

While it's easy to wander into a church and take a gander at the decor, it's a very different thing to be there for a service, to hear the carefully constructed nave echo the organ's music and hear the choir's chorus rise up to God's ears.

To get things started, I headed to the evening service at the Münsterbasilika, the huge church in the middle of town. Beethoven's glowering statue is nearby, so you know the place must be important.I filed in with a surprising number of folks. I was about ten minutes early and the pews were already packed. As I cast my eyes up and down the rows, a friendly looking woman with rosy cheeks thrust a candle into my hand with an enthusiastic "Bitte schöne!" along with a special program book for the mass. I wracked my brain for what even we might be celebrating, knowing we're in the doldrums of Ordinary time (Green Time). I came up with nothing.

I finally wedged myself in next to a guy who looked around 25. He had long, wild black hair and a nose ring. He was wearing a greenish revolutionary jacket with copious patches including one on his left bicep identifying him as a member of St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (thence why "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was on mental loop for the last four days). On his feet he had a pair of well-worn (read: well-loved) Chuck Taylor's Converse. I was surprised to see this man at mass, then even more surprised to hear his enthusiastic "Kyrie Eleison"-ing. Oh cultural stereotypes, why must I use thee?

The mass got started with a fanfare, as in, a literal fanfare. There must have been six horns in the choir loft trumpeting the arrival of the bishop and an army of other priests and a dozen alter attendants. In case there are any non-Catholic readers who have gotten this far, this is not your average Sunday service.

During the homily, I was able to put together the significance of the day. It was the feast day of Bonn's patron saints: Cassius and Florentius. With a little additional Wikipedia-ing I now know their story. The brothers were Roman legionaries in the third century. They were from Egypt (probably) but wound up on the northern borders of the empire fighting the various barbarians that wanted to rough up the empire as barbarians are want to do. They were executed for their Christian faith in Bonn. According the legend, they were decapitated, leading to the 2002 installation of a bizarre public statuary: two enormous heads, each the size of a VW bug, lolling in the plaza outside the church.

It's pretty heady stuff and I don't want to get a-head of myself.

After the Eucharist people started getting their jackets on, but we still hadn't done anything with the candles except juggle them as we knelt, shook hands and blobbed up to communion (remember, Germans are not fans of lines). The bishop disappeared into the back for a while. There was anticipation of something, but I, of course, had no idea what was going on.

The fire started to spread from candle to candle. Sergent Pepper got antsy and whipped out his BIC lighter and sparked his candle and offered me a light. Do I wait for the flame spreading closer and closer, originated by the Easter candle, or do I accept a friendly offer as if I needed a nicotine fix? I ended up being a good neighbor and accepted the BIC, but felt a bit awkward when the gentlemen in front of me turned to pass the flame and saw my candle had somehow spontaneously ignited itself.

When the bishop reappeared (with another fanfare) he was followed by two pairs of alter attendants. Each pair had a bust of a soldier-like figure between them, supported by staves propped on their shoulders. The priests followed with incense and a slow procession around the basilica began. When the busts passed me, I could see each was labeled, "Cassius" on the first "Florentius" on the second. Near the base of each sculpture was a round petri-dish like medallion holding a sliver of bone. Relics of Bonn's patron saints.

I eventually fell into rank with no idea of where we were headed. For all I knew we were about to walk the streets until midnight, or climb to some castle in the hills. In reality we just did a lap of the building as the organ, chorus and brass heralded our movements. Then I noticed everyone ahead of me seemed to be descending into the ground. Where to next?

A crypt lies under the alter for quiet meditation. Somehow most of the congregation packed into the small basement. I'm not sure what would have happened if one of the two hundred candles had caught something flammable while we were all packed down there. Fortunately that thought didn't occur to me until after I reached the street again, unsinged.

I couldn't see very well, but I heard the bishop recite a prayer and chant something as the organ dramatically ceased at the peak of its crescendo. The cleric banged the base of the crucifix on something hollow and metallic on the floor, then we were moving again. As I shuffled closer, I saw people descending into the floor. At this rate I would be crawling through the sewage system of West Germany's capital with the bishop and his team of relic-hefting alter boys.

I waited, examining the mosaics and artifacts until I could approach the new pit. Two brass/iron doors had been swung open in the middle of the crypt and a narrow staircase descended. The devout were going down, tracing an irregular loop and coming back up. In case you've never tried descending a 1500 year old stairway while an eighty-year old woman with a cane climbed in the opposite direction, know that it is a very difficult process.

At the base of the stairs were slabs of marble and granite lying on the floor of a small cell. The walls of the alcove were well-worn, with inscriptions and carvings discernible through centuries of residue. I wasn't sure where I was or what I was looking at. I just knew people didn't get to go down there very often. And everyone was very solemn. That made quite a bit of sense when a helpful brochure later told me that was the final resting place of the city's patrons'.
I consider the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go through the doors in the floor of the Münsterbasilika a warm welcome from Cass and Flo.

But I wasn't finished following people blindly. When I walked out of the church, a stream of people was headed to the center of town to the Beethoven statue. Naturally I did as well. This is what I saw:

A whole suite of classical music set to lights and water. Of course, Ludwig was heavily featured. They even sprayed a fine mist which worked as a projection screen for all the sponsors logos. It was like going to see fireworks, except the falling debris was a little less dangerous, and the view obstructed by umbrellas.

Apparently Bonn's city festival was kicked off by the Mass and will go through the week, celebrated with food, Kolsch and...fountains? Welcome to town.

1 comment:

Mama B said...

just going to Mass you have an adventure! the candles and threat of fire in a church basement took me back to Christmas in Tokyo...