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(St Thomas), Leipzig, Germany
|Mystery Worshipper: Portola.
The church: Thomaskirche
(St Thomas), Leipzig, Germany.
Lutheran Church in Saxony.
The building: The St Thomas Church 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
The neighbourhood: 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.
The date & time: 2 January 2011, 9.30am.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 this church your regular (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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