Thursday, January 8, 2009

I have an Epiphany

What a crazy two weeks. It honestly feels like it’s been a month since I sat down to update this blog. Over the course of the last couple of weeks I’ve laid my weary head down in Nürnberg, Remagen, Vienna, Salzburg and Munich, staying in each place two to three days which is just long enough to get used to the place, map it out and feel comfortable. I think this helped make the time last longer. There was a kind of routine, but things changed often enough to say interesting and each day was packed with incredible new experiences with my family and with Carolyn. But more on those later.

For now I want to discuss Epiphany, the last day of Christmas and one of Cologne’s favorite days. For those who may need a reminder, Epiphany is January 6th, twelve days after Christmas, and celebrates the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem to visit baby Jesus.

My favorite reenactment of the Three Kings' arrival in Bethlehem.

It’s a big day in Cologne because the Dom, the massive Gothic cathedral, possesses the bodies of the three kings as relics. The relics were kept in Constantinople until 344 when they were moved to Milan. In 1164 the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa packed them up and sent them to the Archbishop of Cologne. The relics were viewed as particularly special because they belonged to the first people to recognize the arrival of God on Earth (outside Jesus’s family anyway). The three Magi were the fist pilgrims who “traversed afar” and were honored accordingly with the construction of a massive golden shrine reliquary in the Mosan style, a Romanesque artistic style endemic to the Rhine valley.

The triple sarcophagus is about a meter wide, a meter an half tall and two meters long and is divided into three compartments for housing each of the bodies. The outside is covered with bas reliefs depicting prophets, apostles and scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including the adoration of the Magi. It’s impressive.
The Shine was ensconced in the old, wooden cathedral in Cologne. As pilgrims began to journey en mass to the shrine, the archbishop decided it was time for a more impressive building to house the important relics, thus the Dom, over the course of six centuries, was built. Cologne has the bones lying in that shrine, to thank for their favorite feature of the skyline.

The day after I dropped Carolyn off at the airport in Frankfurt was Epiphany, and I wanted to make my own pilgrimage to the cathedral. There were two things I wanted to experience. 1) The ringing of “Dicke Pitter (Fat Peter),” the largest swinging bell in the world which is only sounded on special occasions and 2) I wanted to see the relics. I had read that the skulls were put on display on this one day (I think from a Rick Steves guidebook).

To be honest, I mostly wanted to be present for the “event.” I don’t feel a particular devotion to religious relics, and I’m not much of a religious pilgrim. A historical or paleontological pilgrim maybe, but I’ve never really gone out of my way to see the fragmentary remains of a saint. In fact, I don’t think many Catholics are as devoted to relics as our Medieval counterparts. After reading “The Pardoner’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, you get a pretty low opinion of relics. People have tried to tally up exactly how massive the cross would have been if all the fragments of the “True Cross” were gathered together (one estimate says the cross would weigh about 10 tons). The Shroud of Turin has received incredible scrutiny and is generally deemed a reconstruction. Luther railed against relics, wondering how 26 apostles could be buried in Germany when there were only 12.

Many modern scholars and even worshipers are kind of cynical about relics as a backward, Medieval idea. There’s an implied, “You know that may be fake, right?” I know the feeling well, because I feel it myself. The identity of the three kings or three wise men has always been a bit hazy. We know they were from the East. We know they were star gazers. We know they were privileged to have an audience with Herod and that they brought gifts that weren’t very practical for a newborn baby. We don’t know much else. Even their names, Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, are legendary, rather than part of the Gospels.

The idea that all of their bodies could be brought together is a little hard to believe. My disbelief is reminiscent of my attitude towards professional wrestling when I meet an avid fan: “You know it’s fake, right?” “Well, yeah, but that’s not the point. It’s the story, man. It’s the characters. Plus sometimes they actually get hurt.” “But you know they’re not breaking chairs over each others noggins, right?” “Well yeah…dude, you just don’t get it.” Maybe I don’t, but I’m willing to learn.

I do understand the importance of being proximate to history. There is a genuine connection to the past when I scrutinize a fragment of ancient bone or stand where John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence. But I, along with my current culture, want these moments to be authentic. Many a six-year-old is disappointed to find out the displayed bones of T. rex are mostly casts because the real bones would be too heavy to mount. Nothing kills the vibrant-connection-to-the-past-vibe like the word “replica.”

We can’t be sure relics are “real” because many of them were gathered before paperwork was a staple of German culture. The miracles associated with many relics were proof enough that the sacred objects were an expression of God’s presence on Earth. Literally millions of people have flocked to be near the bones of three people who may or may not actually be the Magi. Does forgery diminish their devotion? Anyway...

I know I was devoted when I woke up at 7 to get to Cologne by 9:35 to hear the bell then Mass led by the Archbishop. But, I had forgotten about the other big news in town: snow. This part of Germany usually doesn’t get a lot of snow. If they have it, it hangs around for a day or so, then melts away. In many cases it doesn’t even stick. This means currently I am in the midst of the blizzard of aught-eight. The snow has been on the ground for about a week and a little more falls every couple of days. The temperature has stayed below freezing and Germany is in a bit of a tizzy. There isn’t enough salt stored up to keep the sidewalks cleared and the ice is building up. This means many of the trams and trains are also out of sorts.

Tuesday, my tram was twenty minutes late, then took 1.5 hours to travel to Cologne, a route that normally takes 45 minutes. I sat on the tram, watching the minutes click by. I was in the middle of cornfields when the big bell clanged, then I was late for mass and missed the procession of crazy hats that signals the convening of a major Catholic event. After mass the congregation was allowed to troupe behind the altar to look at the Shrine of the Three Kings from a distance. But the relics themselves were not on display. Maybe they only got them out for one service? I checked the schedule and saw that a Cardinal from France would be presiding later that night. I went home, worked on catching up with my room and e-mail, then turned around and headed back to Cologne (with plenty of time for delayed trams).

This time I got to see the full procession. The column was filled with priests, altar attendants, bishops, archbishops and the Cardinal. The group was then followed by the choir and a small army of “Sternsingers,” kids dressed as the three kings toting cardboard stars on dowel rods. The banners of the three kings were also trouped in. Things were looking more significant. Maybe now I would see the relics.
After the mass, the column was lead down the aisle, then looped back towards the shrine. So far things were looking good. In Bonn, when the relics of the city patrons were presented, everyone followed the column of clergy. We were doing it again. I heard the invocation of prayer near the shrine, but when my turn came to walk by the shrine, I was disappointed to find it was still locked in its glass case.

A view of the Choir that you don't get unless they let you stand behind the alter (a rare event). The Shrine is behind me. The walls were painted in the 10th or 11th century. The woodwork is incredibly intricate. As I studies the little figures, one of the security guys walked over to figure out what was holding my attention when there was a big gold box behind me. I explained that I thought the carvings were beautiful. He seemed confused.

After two epiphany services and a total travel time of at least five hours to and from Cologne, I can safely say I feel connected to the Dom. It's a crazy thought, but I've been to mass at the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe more than any other place of worship on this continent. For such an significant and beautiful structure to feel familiar is pretty exciting. As I stated earlier, I had two goals – hear the bell, see the kings – neither of these came to fruition. I blame Rick Steves and the blizzard. However, I was blessed to see the morning sun shining through the new stained glass window, so I will leave you with this image, taken by a modern pilgrim:
(You can click on the images to make them larger if you want a better look at the colors)

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