Thomaskirche, Leipzig Exterior

St Thomas, Leipzig, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Thomas
Location: Leipzig, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 January 2011, 9:30am

The building

The Thomaskirche dates back to the 12th century. From 1492 to 1496 the church was reconstructed into the form of a late Gothic hall church. There are two altars and two organs. One small altar is below the pulpit, and the main altar is in the choir. Both altars are used during the service, and when the liturgist stands at the high altar, he or she seems to be half a mile away. The main altar, a Gothic triptych altar crafted in the 15th century, originally belonged to the university church of St Paul, which was demolished by the socialist regime in 1968 because it did not fit into their plans to establish a Karl Marx Square; this senseless destruction has been called an act of cultural barbarism. The altar was removed before the demolition, renovated, and loaned by the University of Leipzig to St Thomas in 1993. The choir also holds the grave of Johann Sebastian Bach and a baptismal font built 1614-1615, at which 11 of Bach's children were baptised.

The church

Martin Luther preached at this church in 1539. JS Bach, who was thoroughly rooted in the Lutheran faith, was the director of the St Thomas boys' choir from 1723 until his death in 1750. The focal point of this church community is to provide high quality services and concerts that feature the music of Bach, especially his cantatas and organ music. The St Thomas Boys' Choir, which has been in existence for 800 years, is a magnet for visitors from all over the world. Bach's motets and cantatas are sung weekly in worship services on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The major oratorios are performed at Christmas and in Lent. But the choir also sings music of other composers and contemporary music. Aside from worship and concerts, this church community is regarded as lively, with a variety of groups and events: for example, afternoons for seniors, open discussion evenings, a women's group, a young people's group, a Bible group, support of a winter meeting place for homeless people, instruction in Christian faith for immigrants.

The neighborhood

Leipzig sits at the crossroads of two historic trade routes. The city is known for its trade fairs, which were officially established in 1507. For a long time it was also considered the book printing centre of Germany. It was one of the first cities in Germany to implement street lighting. The main train station, built in 1915 and containing 31 platforms, is the largest passenger station in Europe. Leipzig, especially the nearby Nikolaikirche, was a focal point for the peaceful but forceful demonstrations in the autumn of 1989 that led to the downfall of the socialist regime.

The cast

Herr Prof. Dr Martin Petzold, liturgy and sermon (Dr Petzold is a prominent Bach expert, as I discovered afterward.) Frau Ute Träger (member of church council), readings and children's service. Frau Kristiane Köbler, organist.

What was the name of the service?

Gottesdienst und Abendmahl (Worship Service and Holy Communion, actually two services)

How full was the building?

I estimate that about 80 people were present. Half of the congregation sat close together near the pulpit; the other 40 were scattered. The church seats 1600.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We came through an entrance at which no one was standing. I went through the church to another entrance, where someone was handing out the order of worship. He greeted me with polite friendliness.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was quiet and subdued. Maybe two or three small groups of people were talking with one another, but it was not the type of animated conversation that often occurs before a service. It was almost as though strangers had come together. Since there is a lot to see in this church, people were wandering about, taking in the sights, myself included.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (This was the Bible text of the week, John 1:14b). "I welcome you heartily to this service on the second Sunday after Christmas."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books, but a printed order of service (with English translation) containing the texts and musical notes of the hymns and of the complete liturgy. This order of service made it easy to participate. It made me feel welcome and shows that this church is accustomed to getting large numbers of visitors from inside and outside the country. It is not customary in Germany to give worshippers a printed order of service. I cannot imagine another church community in Germany that would offer such a comprehensive printed orientation for a non-special Sunday.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The larger organ is up in the choir loft at the back of the church. High on the north side is an organ built specifically so that the works of Bach could be performed in the way he intended.

Did anything distract you?

I was seated in such a way that one of the bright church lamps was behind the head of the preacher when he was standing in the pulpit. Whenever he moved his head to the right, I got the full glare of the lights in my eyes. Another distraction: a musical feature of this service was a short organ chorale of Bach in the middle of the service: Puer Natus in Bethlehem. At the start of the service the congregation was invited to pay particular attention to the way that Bach conveys joy in this composition. The couple behind us preferred to converse with one another as this organ music was being played.

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

It was a formal Lutheran service with a sung liturgy. The singing of the congregation was surprisingly energetic and strong, especially considering that some of the Christmas hymns we sang were not well known. Another attractive feature was the moment before the sermon when the children regularly leave the service to attend a special children's service. Only one child was present, but a processional candle was lit for her and placed in her hands, and she was led away by two adults for her own personal service. This moment gave human warmth to the efficient liturgical service. Holy communion was not integrated into the regular service but was a separate service afterward. About half of the congregation left, and the other half processed into the choir. We sang the Lutheran Christmas hymn "From heaven above to earth I come", written 500 years ago.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

23 minutes.

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

8 – Most of the sermons I have heard in my life were below 7. So when I give an 8 it is really deserved. Dr Petzold had a smooth style of speaking that was easy to listen to; he had put a lot of thought and solid content into his carefully crafted sermon. It was a style of preaching that I appreciate because it had cohesiveness. It reminded me of a Bach cantata, in which all the parts form a unit and contribute to one theme, and in which the grace and glory of God shine through. There were also touches of humour. In other words: it was a sermon worthy of the historic church in which it was held. It was addressed to "insiders", to people who are well grounded in Christian faith, which was the type of congregation to expect on this Sunday.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The theme of the sermon was "Christmas in everyday life" – seeing the glory of God through encounters with Jesus, which tend to be in ordinary situations and inconspicuous. The sermon was based on the sermon text for this Sunday (John 1:43-51), which relates how Jesus called Philip and Nathaniel. It would have been easy for Nathaniel to brush off Jesus, because Jesus and his home town did not seem to be anything special. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Nathaniel asked. The preacher developed three themes: (1) Encounters with God, as revealed in Jesus, occur in ordinariness and lowliness, seemingly by accident. They lead invariably to witnessing. (2) "Seeing" plays a role in the gospel of John: Jesus calls people by "seeing" them, and people see God in Jesus – even if they are not sure about what they are seeing. Only with the heart can one decide what one is seeing and whether one wants to belong to him whom Jesus reveals. No power on earth is allowed to manipulate this decision, although some have tried. (3) Jesus is in continual communion with God (Jacob's Ladder image). Jesus is "our man in heaven". Because he was with us in our pain, suffering and death, we are with him in the presence of God. The preacher emphasised this final point by quoting the closing sentence of Bach's Christmas Oratorio: "Humanity now has a place with God".

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

On a dull, freezing winter morning, coming off the snow-covered, icy pavement of Leipzig into this bright, beautiful, historic church, seeing the Christmas tree and the lighted star above the altar area, was heavenly in itself. But the special moment came at the end – celebrating the eucharist with a sung liturgy in this altar area was a foretaste of heaven, because it put us in communion with all those who had gone before us. In our midst was the baptismal font, at which people had been baptised for almost 400 years; at our feet was the grave of Bach. To the front was the festive and intricate altar, also 500 years old, exquisitely decorated with gold, featuring scenes from the life of Christ, Paul and Mary.

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

However, as mentioned, only half of the congregation stayed for holy communion. The eucharist will not be a truly satisfying foretaste of heaven until all people are a part of this divine fellowship. Seeing half the congregation leave after the regular service was like being in the "other place".

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

Just about every visitor to the Thomaskirche stands around in this vast church looking lost after the service, trying to decide what to look at and trying to soak in the atmosphere. On this Sunday there was no visible congregation after the service, just a scattering of people.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no coffee on this Sunday, but it is normally offered in a small sacristy at the back of the church.

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

8 – I think that the character of this church community revealed itself on this Sunday after New Year. I experienced an energetic service, a bright celebration of the season of Christmas. The strong singing of this small congregation and the depth of the sermon were truly remarkable. And for someone like me, for whom Bach is the ultimate composer of church music, it just doesn't get any better than this. However, I would need to hear the preaching of the regular clergy before I could decide about becoming a regular. Anyone preaching at this church is competing with Bach; any sermon that does not match Bach's depth, emotional intensity and ingeniousness will appear shallow and haphazard.

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

Yes, indeed. My Christian identity has a lot to do with Christmas as a celebration of the incarnation and of the revelation of God's glory within the frailty of human flesh. This service captured these themes with depth and breadth. I cannot imagine another church in Germany that every week offers such an exquisite musical and liturgical experience as St Thomas, where the organ and choral music are invariably of the highest quality, especially on the high church festivals.

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

The altar is the crown jewel of this church. The more I looked at this altar, the more it grew on me. It survived over 500 years of turbulent history. It radiates nothing less than the glory of God.

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