A Day Trip to Wittenberg

Wittenberg in Germany will be the go-to place in 2017, for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's kick starting of the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses onto the church door there. We thought we would beat the crowds by visiting more than two years early. Good plan, but the execution let us down.

The day did not start well. The weather was cold and bleak; the sort of day sitting indoors beside a fire beats just about any outdoor activity. The train journey from Leipzig took almost twice as long as it should have, due to an unexpected and unexplained 50 minute delay by Deutsche Bahn. Standing on a train platform shifting weight from one foot to the other while a Siberian breeze blows through on its way to who knows where, was, and is, a test of character.

We passed the test. The train arrived. We boarded it. Eventually.

The Wittenburg Castle Church has a distinctive and much photographed tower that materialised against a grey-white sky across green fields well before our train reached the town. Keen to see the church, or more accurately, the church door to which the famous theses were nailed, we hurried past several warm and cosy coffee shops, to find the tower covered by plastic like a half completed gift wrapping. Worse, the church itself couldn't be seen through a similar wrapping. It was enveloped by an enormous skeleton of metal scaffolding. The famous church door peeked through a gap in all of this: obviously an oversight on the part of someone.

 

The biggest disappointment came when we were allowed inside.

I was conscious of my own sigh and I think I heard others around me too. The building was virtually covered, inside and out, with metal poles and drop sheets. Even the huge stones beneath our feet had been covered by plywood sheets. The mighty church was a building site.
I felt a little embarassed for it. The grand lady was not ready for visitors, but was nevertheless subject to the indignity of receiving them in curlers and bath robe.

 

Someone had assembled a make shift altar from a folding table, red cloth and a vase of flowers, so that worship services could continue during the renovations. It occured to me that this said something important that I needed to pick up on. So often I have assumed that church buildings, be they cathedrals or more humble ones, embody spiritual power. Walk inside any church building and experience that for yourself, whether or not you are a believer.

That simple and unpretentious red covered table has caused me to reconsider that assumption. In this case the building itself had been taken out of play; rendered an invalid if you like. There was still a strong sense of the spiritual in that place. It was obvious that it wasn't coming from the majesty of the stones and bricks. It had another source entirely. The spirit of the church was real and it arose from the devotion, faith and flexibility of its parishioners who had continued to worship in the midst of the upheaval of the lengthy rennovation process. Whereas all the visual cues of a once mighty church of the Reformation had been covered by metal and plastic, we visitors from afar were still met with the power of an unseen reality; the Holy Spirit.

It seemed to me at least, that all of the pride and the effort and the pretension of those church builders all those years ago was not misplaced. They had created a beautiful building which was a testament to their God. The real power, however, was never in the building with its grandeur and its illusion of permanence. The real power was entirely other. I was privileged to see that for myself when I noticed a small, unpretensious, temporary altar in the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

It was a sunny afternoon when I photographed the main railway station in Leipzig. The resemblance to a cathedral was more than passing. It occurs to me that churches are not the only places built to impress others with a feeling of grandeur and the illusion of permanence. I wonder if I would be conscious of an enduring power or presence in this place if its outward form were to be hidden during a renovation.


 

 

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