My Two Cents on the Scents of Incense

I’m going to be straight up with you, Germany has held a lot of surprises for me. Things that I didn’t expect, things that I didn’t know would be here, things that I didn’t even know existed, have all popped up throughout my time here. I arrived here not thinking that I knew everything, but neither was I aware of how many things I was completely unaware of. I like to think that I’ve adapted quickly and managed to readjust how I perceive my current environment, but there’s still so much that I have yet to pick up on. From the way that certain words are pronounced, to the different kinds of foods available, to the ticks and bits of micro-behaviors that differentiate how an American acts from how a German acts, there is a lot that I’m still learning. With that said, High Mass at the Köln Cathedral was quite an experience for me.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Köln Hauptbahnhof (central train station), and we were eager to get out of the hot and stuffy train car into the fresh air. We made sure everyone had successfully disembarked, and then proceeded to leave the train station for the open city. As we approached the main doors out of the station, one could see the base of an old gothic stone structure not far across a stone plaza. As we walked closer to the way out, we could see more and more of the structure. Each step I expected to see the top of a bell tower or a steeple, or sky, or something that was not still this structure, but each step just revealed more and more stone laden with immense detail and age. Eventually, stepping outside of the doors, I finally saw the top. The professors allowed us to look at the exterior for a bit before we brought our bags to our hotel, after which we returned so we could enter the massive structure itself.

I’ve seen a fair amount of cathedrals in my life. I’ve explored St. Paul’s, I’ve wandered around St. Peter’s a couple times, I’ve been to the Duomo, to give a few examples. I am not unfamiliar with the mesmerizing detail and dizzying size that cathedrals tend to carry. Nevertheless, there was something about this cathedral that felt different. It felt more stoic, as if it held more gravity in its countenance, and if I were to have a conversation with it, I would come back wiser, a little more solemn, and a little more grown-up.

Walking inside points you down the middle of the structure, with a row of stone pillars to your left and to your right, reaching up to the arched ceiling far above. Stained glass windows line the upper half of the walls, portraying scenes and portraits of Bible stories, as well as depictions of various religious figures, both of biblical times and of the contemporary late-medieval church. Sun pours in from the windows, illuminating their images against a rainbow of patterned light. One could spend days just studying the windows, with inscriptions in both German and Latin. The sound of organ music intertwined with Gregorian singing, such as that which greeted us as we entered the cathedral, ties the whole sensation together.

Of course, one does not simply create a cathedral off of a quick whim, let alone a cathedral of this caliber. Long ago, there used to be a church in Köln at the site of the cathedral that stands there today. However, at the end of the crusades, some knights came back with what was believed to be the bones of the three wise men who visited Jesus when He was young. Such a relic deserved to be housed in a magnificent house of worship, and since their current church was merely average, the people of Köln decided to build a new one worthy of their treasure. And so, over the course of over half a millennium, the magnificent structure that is Köln Cathedral was constructed.

Pardon the tangents, but basically what I suppose I’m trying to convey here is that this church is beautiful and awe-inspiring and my limited verbal capacity is unable to accurately describe what it is like. The next morning we attended the service, which was even more amazing than the structure. My church is big, but the way I grew up doing church is very different from how we worshiped in that service. We sing contemporary songs, and the words are beamed up to a projector in front of the congregation. We have frequent involvement of members of the congregation in the service, and the preaching makes up at least half of the service. There’s a lot of differences in appearance, for sure, but this makes it easy to overlook the similarities. I think that in the end, the goal is the same, to worship our God, Creator, and Savior, and to be united with our fellow Christians in our shared fellowship and beliefs.

I think that when I look back on this service, the thing that I will remember most prominently will be the music. I love the music my home church worships with, from the emotion it stirs to the loudness and authenticity it inspires. Yet the music from the service at Köln Cathedral was awe-inspiring in its own right. The music was full of majesty and theology, refined through years of worship. I can’t really say what exactly it was about the music that was so beautiful, but the sense of grandeur that filled the room when the organ began, the theology that the ancient Latin lyrics carried through the air, there was something beautiful in each individual aspect, as well as how they blended into one another into a single symphony of worship.

I must admit that it was kind of weird when the service ended. As a Latin student of 7+ years, I was still coming down from my hey-we’re-singing-Latin-and-I-know-what-it-means high, sitting there in that pew for a while, taking it all in. It had just so happened that the second song of that service we had sung my favorite Latin worship song (known by many names, but mainly “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, the “Greater Doxology”, or the “Angelic Hymn”). I had had an amazing time of worship, and I turn around to see a crowd of tourists watching in the back, waiting to be allowed inside. It felt odd to see a cathedral designed to be the house of God flooded with tourists. On the one hand, the building was being admired, just as it was intended to be, but the initial purpose of the building’s grandeur (ie, God’s glory) was not being met, at least not by the majority of those who enter. While I myself was playing the role of tourist, I was still worshiping God internally for His power and creativity, for surely the creation is only a fraction as beautiful as the creator.

I do not think I will forget that service any time soon, and I look forward to returning.

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