Germany - Passion Week And Easter
( Originally Published 1887 )
SPRING has been coming here early. I picked a bunch of snow-drops in our little front yard on the eighth of February, and now the fulness of the spring is here. Gloomy and disagreeable as the winter has been, in the same degree is the German spring-time fresh and beautiful. With it has come the Easter vacation, and fare-well to Professor Richter. He has gone. I felt sad to say a final Adieu," and my heart echoed his hope, " Auf Wiedersehen in Rom !" The University has closed its Semester, and our winter society is breaking up. It is the inevitable, yet that does not lessen the pain. We belong to different and widely separated parts of the United States, and will probably never see one another again. There is a general breaking-up, as the schools suspend and the nation pauses in holiday. Why ? — For a religious festival, and at this time religion rules the State. Religion regulates the German world. Is this rationalistic Germany ? Is this the land where the deepest truths of the Christian faith are assailed ? Is this the skeptical, unbelieving, dangerous spot of Christendom ? Is this the Fatherland whose irreligious tendencies are bewailed, warnings of which resound throughout the earth ?
These are the questions that rush upon the mind at the great church festival seasons in Germany, and there seems but one answer a decided denial. At such times it is hard to believe in Germany's skepticism. If one may judge the religious state of a country by the strictness and zeal of the memorials of the Gospel story, then to the above questions most emphatically we answer, "No, —a thousand times, no. It is all a mistake, and Germany is a devout, fervent Christian nation."
Christmas week thus speaks, yet you feel that, perhaps, it is a universal celebration because it brings happiness and festivity, and there may be, after all, little religious meaning in it to the people. This last religious season, however, Passion Week, or the " still week," is of a different kind, directly opposed, appealing rather to feelings man naturally avoids ; yet it, too, meets with the same voluntary observance, and we must believe that there exists a religious life in Germany. The teaching of the scholars, the writing of the theologians and philosophers, the pleasure-seeking, irreligious life of the multitudes, may argue otherwise ; but, surely, there is a strong counter argument in this deep devotion to the solemnization of the most sacred and vital events in the life of Christ as the Saviour, the Son of God.
Berlin, to a great extent, must speak the thought of all Germany. It is the capital, — here is the court, parliament, university, with its five thousand students, and here the crowding masses of people gather. The state of this city must indicate some of the conditions of the whole country. How, then, does Berlin answer these questions ? Truly, the general life of the people seems godless, there is no respect for the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day, yet there is one hopeful feature, — the preaching in the churches, and its reception by the people. The churches are not empty, as we had supposed ; the preaching is not dead or rationalistic, as we had been led to believe.
Passion Week and Easter reveal a living spirit in the church, that we must trust. Think of a whole people, and an industrious and a pleasure-seeking people, turning from both industry and pleasure to solemnly remember the time of the Saviour's suffering, death, and resurrection. Is it merely a form, an empty show, no truth beneath? Much may be formal, but there is a breathing spirit. With no religious feeling in the heart, we do not see people eagerly seeking the house of God, — at all hours, in busy times, abandoning all else, giving themselves wholly to service. Such a church-going we know nothing about, — four services a day, for several days, in every church, and each service crowded.
True, Church and State are united ; these are national holidays, and service must be held. Yet that does not call forth a people eager to hear the word of God, — the heart only can impel to that. That does not lead a people to stand hours be-fore the church doors, anxious to secure a spot to hear the message, — and then to stand during the entire service, and, moreover, where the terrible non-ventilation brings the ever-present possibility of fainting. Regularly several are thus overcome. It is labor to go to church here, and an indifferent people could find ready excuse to omit it. The churches are few, at great distances, sure to be crowded, uncomfortable in every respect, yet they are sought. The old and feeble in Berlin have but a poor chance to hear the Gospel.
The Church year is the national and business year. The Christian year regulates all things. Much of the observance may be only in name, but it keeps the sacred history before the people. William I., in his religious reverence, has had an influence that will work far into the future ; and, although the religious class fear that his death will usher in a more liberal spirit, still the piety fostered by the Emperor will have given an impulse which will lead to a more natural growth when strict requirements are removed.
Passion Week ! Once a year such a celebration, what ought not its influence to be ! Palm Sunday dawns, and the confirmations begin. So many are confirmed that several services are necessary, and thousands are made members of the Church. A previous examination tests the familiarity with the required course of religious instruction. We are glad when the Church holidays arrive, for then we have the opportunity to hear our favorite preachers, Germany's greatest, as the first preacher always conducts service on these days. We choose between Koegel, first court preacher at the Dom, Frommel at the Garnisen, and Dryander of Trinity. To hear these, the crowds are always great, so at the Easter confirmation it is necessary to issue tickets to secure seats for the relatives of the confirmants. We were a little doubtful as to our ability to gain entrance, but an American smile goes as far as a ticket, and while the ticketless Germans walked resignedly away, we obeyed the sexton's quick, secret motion and obtained admission.
For this service the churches are beautifully decorated ; evergreens and plants outside the church doors, flowers in lovely profusion within. Palm Sunday opens the services, and the confirmations take place every day during the "still week." On Monday, Dryander confirmed over one hundred. This was but one of the confirmation classes. To many it was probably only nominal. The whole system seems wrong to us, —confirmation macle compulsory. Yet this is their idea of a Christian nation. It is the old barbarian idea of early centuries, -- baptizing the army as a whole, and thus making them Christian, — all a ceremony and a name. Our custom is equally hard for their comprehension. When we speak of people not members of the Church, they say, "Why, have you so many heathens still among you?" Conversion they seem not to understand. Doubtless, many, very many, thus confirmed will fall away. Dryander seemed to feel it as he stood before them, there was a yearning sadness as he spoke on the text of the day, common in all the churches, —" Fight the good fight of faith."
He spoke earnestly of the battle and the prize —eternal life. "To-day, confirmants, you have hold on eternal life. Will you fight for it, or will you let go your faith and lose it? At times when the struggle is hard, prayer difficult, still keep on, even as August Hermann Francke, hold fast in darkest doubt. Prayer is the thread binding you to God, —keep hold until it draw you to him." Truly this is evangelical, and Germany may hope, with such earnest voices in her midst. The confirmation service is solemn and beautiful. To each a verse is given as a life motto, each is blessed as he kneels at the altar ; the chorus of boys softly chant, the sounds float far above from the organ loft, the candles burn brightly in the dim old church; the solemn-robed priest, the kneeling children, the reverent, hushed people, — all enhance the solemnity of the sacred moment.
A day or two later came a confirmation at which we heard Frommel. The church was fresh and spring like, with delicate, feathery birch twigs, and the Kanzel completely covered, so that Frommel stood in the midst of the green, and the sun played on his white, beloved head. In conversation before he went to this service, he said that this day was the hardest of the whole year for him; the responsibility of sending these children out. into the world, as finished, so to speak ; the Angst that he had not done for them all he might have done, — not prayed enough, not devoted him-self to them enough. Some, he knew, were not firm, not "ripe"; should they go astray, would not God demand an account of him, and yet he was conscious that, no matter how earnestly he had worked for them, many would go astray, and his work would be in vain. He seemed so anxious and distressed ! How humble and childlike he is— the great, courted, brilliant genius! No wonder he went into the pulpit with burning words, when his heart was on fire with love for their souls ! O, how he pleaded with those young people to let God help them : —
"Ihr kommt jetzt nicht aus der Schule; ihr geht erst in die Schule hinein, die Lebens-Schule ! "
Then he told them to consider this hour as the summit of a mountain, which they had climbed in their lessons with him, from which they might descend with rapid strides, or which might be the first ascent in the Christian life, and they could mount higher and higher, to the summit of the mountain, with Christ. Then, also, when suffering and sorrow came over them like the waves of the sea, they should not let them close over their heads, but should look up, and they would see the Lord walking on them, and, at his command, they would be still. " Pray as though you could not work ; work as though you could not pray."
On Thursday, Grün Donnerstag, the most sacred holiday arrives. There is a total suspension of business. It is communion-day. Can we, in our large cities, gather large congregations in the midst of business hours ? Here, every church is filled. The usual altar hangings give place to sombre black all this solemn week. The organ is hushed ; the bells are silent. The sacred story is read in detail. If not in church once during the whole year, on this day the church-member feels it his duty to show his connection with the Christian Church. On Char Freitag, — our Good Friday, — each of the four services was well at-tended. On this day there is the utmost solemnity over the whole city. Many of the people dress in black. No sewing, no knitting, —for once, everything is silent and still. The places of amusement are closed. For three nights, no performance is allowed in the Royal Opera House and Theatre. As at Christmas, the Gospel history is read, reread, repeated, chanted. A beautiful, solemn liturgical service closes the day, called " the still day."
Easter Sabbath ! The "still " is broken. The church bells peal out in gladness; the sadness is over. Gloom is scattered, sunshine and joy flood the earth, and the people are happy ! The churches put on their white and gold altar-decorations, the choirs triumph in hallelujahs, the trumpets mingle with the organ-notes, and the service is joyous and glad. The people are glad, and the priest radiant with Easter happiness. Again comes the old, old story, the crowded churches, the wonderfully beautiful liturgical services at the vesper hour, and the glorious Easter music of the masters.
It is a holiday in the families, almost equal io the Christmas season. There are family gatherings, and mementos are exchanged. The children are delighted with the eggs of chocolate or marzipan. For weeks before, the windows have foretold the day with fascinating suggestions, — nests of eggs, or a pretty little scene of a grass-plot, cunning rabbits half-hidden, and eggs in bright colors peeping forth amidst the green. It is the custom in the home to hide the eggs (the rabbit is the supposed " Santa Claus "), and let the children hunt for them. How the little ones —and the big ones— enjoy it ! The eggs may turn out to be a handsome work-box or jewel-casket. The spirit of play and childhood possesses every one, and even Herr Hauptmann was down on hands and knees, hunting under sofas and boxes until he found his egg a new morning cap! Now, the great Kuchen time begins again. Cake for the whole year is eaten at the festival times. Relatives and friends visit each other, and have the "gemüthliche Stunde," with coffee and cake. Happy times have come again !
The festival is prolonged. There is erste Feiertag, zweite, yes, the people cling to dritte and vierte, and hate to let the holidays slip. The city is in gala trim ; the soldiers with parade uniforms, guards don their white plumes, officials their badges, the people their best clothes, banners fly, music sounds. It is welcome to spring. The heart breaks out into rejoicing that winter is past. It is the spirit of Easter, the day of Hope. Well, the human heart lives by hope, and this may well be the beloved Day. Precious Easter tide ! Needful it is to laboring, burdened humanity, when the heart may drink deeply of its spirit — Hope, the sweet spirit of Easter !