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.