“Liebe Goldene Konfirmanten:” A meditation on faith

The organ-tour group happened to time our arrival in Leipzig to coincide with the start of Bach Week. We tried out two of the organs in Bach’s home church, paid our respects to his grave, bought Bach stuff from his museum, and discovered the mall that happens to have a train-station built into it. (Anyone who has seen the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof knows what I mean.) We also attended worship at St. Thomas, Bach’s church.

In addition to having a Bach choir there to sing part of the service and kick off Bach Week, the day also served to honor people’s confirmations, especially those who had been members of the church for 50 years or more – the Golden Confirmands.

The music was wonderful, the sermon wandered a bit into “the US is bad because of not being nice to the planet and we should do better,” then returned to the point of the day. I happened to be on the first row of those pews not reserved for confirmands, and got a good view of everything.

For my non-Christian readers, confirmation is the ceremony a person goes through when they are of age to be a full adult in the eyes of the church. In some cases this is also when the young people are baptized. It is a positive commitment. You have to say “Yes, I want to be an enrolled member of the church and to be counted,” and you go before the congregation and publicly confirm that yes, you believe certain things and you want to be a full member of the church. It is a little scary. The age of confirmation varies between 7-8 and 13-14, depending on denomination. It’s a teeny bit like a bar mitzvah for Jewish boys, in the sense that the Jewish boys now count toward the minimum of men needed for prayer. Christian confirmands can vote in church elections (and serve on committees. Lucky them.)

At one point during the service in Leipzig, a very elderly lady wandered in and sat in one of the reserved pews. One of the ushers said something and she ignored him, so he ignored her. Apparently it was not worth the fuss, especially not with international guests and all the confirmands and their families. She dozed a bit during the sermon.

What had she seen and survived? Assuming that she was in her late 70s, she’d watched Germany defeated and divided. She’d survived the communist years. She’d watched the landscape of East Germany turn grey brown or black in places from pollution, and had seen churches abandoned and succumb to decay, or torn down completely by the Communist government. She’d been told over and over that G-d didn’t exist, any god, and that religion only numbed her to reality and interfered with the real business of living. And yet here she sat, still faithful.

The minister began calling up the ten-year, fifteen year, twenty year, twenty-five and so on confirmands. These were people who had made a public profession of faith in that church and had stayed true to their faith. The official celebration was for fifty-year confirmands, and they got a candle and a certificate (as well as the party after the service). Two people claimed sixty and sixty-three years, and were recognized as well. Probably forty people stood in the front of the church by the time everyone had come forward.

That took guts, back in the day. Granted, East Germany wasn’t Romania, but to make a public profession of faith as a teenager in Communist Germany required serious commitment. I suspect there were more secret believers, in part because if the officials were against it, teenagers probably inclined towards it. But to keep faith under pressure for that long…

The organ group had a lot to think about later that day. I still recall the old lady in the green dress. I’m sure she’s gone to her reward by now.

In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris poked gentle fun at the clergy who worried that if N. Scott Momaday spoke about sacred traditions and belief at a clergy conference, they’d need someone “for balance.” (Momaday is Kiowa and a physically big man.) Apparently the administrators were worried that the clergy would be disturbed by the author. Norris wondered how many dozen bishops it would take to be sufficient counterweight to balance Momaday. How many nuns? Deacons?

Norris decided that they’d probably only need one faithful old lady. I think I saw that lady.


11 thoughts on ““Liebe Goldene Konfirmanten:” A meditation on faith

  1. As a kid, we saw Question 7, (circa 1961), with the central issue the conflict between Christian belief and Communism in East Germany.
    (See the wikis for a synopsis.) It looks like it’s available.

  2. About the old lady in the pew: I read this story a few years ago: There was a high holy day service at a synagogue. A guy was taking tickets at the door. An old man came through, and had forgotten the ticket. The guy asked him if he had it, and was ready to turn him away.
    The old man pulled up his sleeve, showed the tattoo, and said, “Here’s my ticket”. He went in.

  3. Actually… That’s not what Confirmation/Chrismation means in the Catholic Church or in Orthodoxy. Although the Lutheran interpretation is so powerful, along with the Bar Mitzvah interpretation, that it has kinda taken over in Catholic education unless the teacher is very determined.

    So just to establish it clearly — the idea in Catholicism or Orthodoxy is that Confirmation is part two of Baptism. The person involved is either usually either a child (in Eastern forms of Catholicism or in Orthodoxy), an adult convert (Catholicism and Orthodoxy), or a young kid. (Originally in Western forms of Catholicism, we’re talking a kid who is too young to receive Communion yet. Under pressure of the Bar Mitzvah idea, the kid is often 13 or older.) It’s a Sacrament of Initiation.

    Confirmation is called that because the Church is calling on the Holy Spirit to strengthen and reinforce (“confirmare”) the Christian with a fuller version of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Although you do get those in Baptism, just like you get anointed then too.) One is anointed again with chrism, and this time one receives the laying on of hands (not the same kind as in ordination, but it’s also about being a priestly, prophet-y, royal person). In the West you just get it on the forehead, but in the East you get it on head, hands, feet, chest, and eyes, ears, nose, mouth. (While in the West, the other anointings often get done at Baptism.)

    Besides the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the various charismatic gifts, Confirmation/Chrismation is particularly associated with strengthening one’s protection from demons and from various forms of spiritual gullibility and temptation (if you want to be protected). This bit was seen as embarrassing in modern times and went unmentioned. But a lot of Catholics are starting to wonder if it was foolish to de-emphasize this and thus to let kids put off Confirmations until adulthood, or forever.

    It was long the custom in the West that the anointing, laying on hands, and calling the confirmand by his Confirmation name, the bishop would slap the confirmand on the cheek, as an admonition to be strong in persecution and as a memory aid to recall the occasion. (Knights were also slapped at their knightings; and medieval boundary marking ceremonies included slapping the youngest kids present so that in old age, they would still remember where the bounds were.) In my day, the archbishop just sort of forcefully patted us on the cheek, but many bishops have stopped slapping altogether.

    Catholic Confirmation, like Baptism, requires the presence of a sponsor or proxy sponsor, because you’re not fully initiated into the Church yet. (Obviously this is easier if you’re in the East or an adult convert, and you’re getting the grand slam of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Communion. Then your godparents are your sponsors too.)

    • Anyway, basically it’s the difference between usually getting baptized as part of a Christian household and growing up as a member of the faith (with adult converts being welcomed, of course!), versus the idea that usually one grows up being presented with the faith, but only becomes a member in adulthood if one personally chooses it. You get all kinds and spectrums of these concepts in the various denominations, and with various balances of liturgicalness and sacramentality of grace versus a distrust of anything that isn’t “burning in the breast” or grace in the wild.

      The main thing is that, no matter how one becomes a Christian or stays a Christian, the Gospels are very clear about the price of being a Christian. We are none of us greater than our Master, and so none of us can expect to avoid carrying our own crosses.

      There’s a reason that a lot of Christians pray for the gift of perseverance, and particularly, of final perseverance.

    • Nowadays, the thing that comes to mind when I think about my own confirmation is that creepy pedophile bishop laid his hands on my at confirmation, but was thankfully not handsy like Joe Biden.

      • Well, if we are thinking of the same guy geographically, he might not have done anything with anybody underage, but he seems to have done a lot of other stuff. And he allowed and encouraged bad stuff to happen. But there is a pretty large number of bishops who were up to no good in a wide variety of ways, so I hardly need to know who you are talking about.

        The good point is that Confirmation is a sacrament. It works ex opere operato, and owes nothing to the sinfulness or state of grace of the bishop. (Or priest with delegated powers.)

  4. I don’t know if Germany still has tight restrictions on when stores can be open, but thirty years ago the only stores that had permission to be open late at night or on Sunday were the shops in the Hauptbahnhof. I think this was an old custom and would explain the extensive retail at some of these train stations.

    • The custom is still around in smaller towns, but has weakened some. The former East Germany is a little different again, but seems to be falling into the “small towns – closed on Sundays probably” pattern.

  5. I was never in East Germany. We were packing up to move back home when the wall came down. There were some friends who had planned to visit relatives in Berlin that Christmas with their two small children. They cancelled the trip because traffic on the highway back and forth was thoroughly jammed and they weren’t sure it would be practical with kids.

Comments are closed.