Holy Week arrived like a kiss from heaven. On the heels of a warm, sunny week, during which I learned how to German bike ride (the objective skill of riding a bike is different than learning the sport of the German bike ride) and victoriously made small talk with a five-year-old, entirely in German, I strode confidently on a sunny spring day to the local Catholic church, where I was met with a subdued wisp of palm frond and a full house of families.
The church was packed, but it was less participatory than I excepted. It neither started with the celebratory procession outside the church, during which the congregation makes holy fools of themselves, nor did the Gospel re-enactors pause for the crowd to say “Crucify him,” as we are instructed to do as Episcopalians during the trial of Pilate. Making the congregation complicit in this important trial scene underscores the weight of responsibility will all bear in condemning Christ. Nonetheless, the Palm Sunday service, with its lack of a traditional sermon, still leaves you contemplating the words of the Gospel, in which we see the forces of the Temple, Rome and personal betrayal conspire to bring Jesus from the heights of adoration to the depths of crucifixion in one brutal week.
For me, the week was similarly brutal: I discovered some gaps in my visa paperwork, continued to slosh through the process of being evicted in Los Angeles and came up against an unrelenting spate of writer’s block. As the week continued, the weather quickly deteriorated from the fresh, spring weekend into a dark, rainy week. I made use of my new umbrella for the first times, slogged around in soggy feet, and got a serious dressing-down from an angry woman in a nearby suburb for trying to take a photo of her lovely house on the sidewalk. “Ich mache ein photo, weil die Haus ist einfach schön. Ich kanne das Photo delete!” I told her in a haphazard German reply. I just took a photo of the house because it’s pretty! I’ll delete it! See! She wasn’t impressed. (My friend, who lives across the street, later confirmed she is the neighborhood’s Crazy Neighbor Lady.)
What Palm Sunday teaches us is that glory comes for but a moment, and it is usually in moments of triumph that we know foreboding chill is just around the corner. Especially during Holy Noir.
Maundy Thursday (Gründonnerstag)
I’m beginning to appreciate how dark Berlin is. It makes for some exquisite shadows, the perfect winter chill, and the ear-curdling sounds of water rushing through tires on the streets. I think the wetness helps high heels clunk a little louder and smoky jazz fill your lungs a little deeper, too. Slushing around the quiet streets of Berlin at night, it began to feel like a city abandoned, betrayed by darkness as the week progressed. It’s an actual matter of fact that the street lights are dim, making it exceptionally dark. Nobody’s kidding around about the cover of darkness.
By Thursday, the city had reached a low, long, rumbling pause, as shops sputtered to a close and the city retreated into darkness, or vacation. Who knows? I went to another German-language service, this time at the Anglican church, with ecumenical liturgy shared by Anglican and Catholic priests. Muslim, Jewish and Hindu holy people offered prayers. A Pakistani played the harmonium and sang. Representatives from five faiths and five continents participated, all in a church built in the 13th century on Alexanderplatz, which (miraculously) survived the air strikes of World War II, one of the only churches left entirely intact. Feet were washed by priests, songs were sung. But prayers, in Hebrew, in German, in Arabic, in English, were truly the most spectacular part of the service. In a moment of peace, a moment of true communion, the church rests before the darkness descends.
Friday came, sunny but frigid. I rode my bike for almost an hour and a half to the Anglican service on the far side of town. It was a slide show of the Stations of the Cross, set to the soundtrack of five congregants reading scriptures. They did not describe the stations, but rather dovetailed with the message. It was a beautiful and solemn service. The city itself seemed forgotten and quiet, its chillingly cold air already recalling the barrenness of a cold tomb.
That night, I went to see Bach’s Matthew’s Passion, performed by a chorale at the Philharmonie. Strangely, the 1970s-era concert hall, across the street by its cousin-building, the Stadtsbibliotek made famous in Der Himmel über Berlin, cast its own sacred spell, even before the music started. I sat next to a group of Greek ladies, sharing a program with text in German as we heard once again the brutal story of the suffering of Jesus. My friends complained it was performed too fast, and modern indictment on our age’s refusal to suffer: we want to skip all the hard parts and get straight to the happy ending. It surprises me that Germans fall victim to this seemingly American response towards hardship.
Again, the night was cold and the bus nearly empty, as it seemed the city had disappeared, scattered into the darkness.
… to be continued…