It has been a busy few days, following Luther around Germany as well as seeing some other important sights. We went from Wittenberg, where Luther "started" the Reformation with his 95 Theses, to Erfurt where he had become a monk and a priest, to Eisenach where he had attended school as a boy yet also where he was hidden as an excommunicated/outlawed heretic (so we went backwards and then jumped in Luther's timeline, all in just a few days!). We were able to visit churches that continue to be Roman Catholic as well as a Lutheran church that now worships in the church at the formerly Augustinian monastery where Luther once lived. We had Evening Prayer at the monastery, sitting in the same choir stalls that monks used to sit in to pray 7 times each day, now filled with Protestants praying twice each day. We said the psalm and sang the songs simultaneously in English and German, and we prayed the Lord's Prayer simultaneously in English and German, and it was a lovely experience.
At the Wartburg Castle we understood more of Luther's famous hymn: "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing." The castle is indeed a fortress, at the very peak of the tallest hill around. We took the bus up most of the hill, but then it was still a very steep climb up stairs and a steep path, then across a drawbridge that we could not see the purpose of. We kept saying "If someone gets up here, they deserve the castle!" It is a beautiful piece of architecture, constructed over the course of many centuries, and including a Romanesque Palace as well as towers and crenellated walls, complete with tiny windows for shooting arrows and little inner rooms perfect for hiding outlawed monks who want to translate the Bible into the common language. Luther was hidden at the castle for several months, and in the course of 10 weeks he translated the whole New Testament from the original Greek into German, and in the process he basically created the modern German language. It was very cool to be in the place that sheltered him, inspired him, and made scripture in our own languages possible.
Our other day trip was to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Due to some drama at the train station, though, we weren't able to go first thing in the morning, so we instead spent the morning visiting the Old Synagogue of Erfurt--the oldest synagogue in Europe, built in the 11th century. The Jews were repeatedly kicked out or massacred in Erfurt, culminating in a pogrom in 1349 that eliminated the Jewish community. The synagogue was saved because it was built all around, so people couldn't see it from the road. In the second Jewish community that came in the mid 1400s, they used a new synagogue, as the old one had been converted to a warehouse inside. Then later it was turned into a dance hall and a restaurant, until one day in 1998 one of the adjoining buildings was falling down and it became clear that there was an old religious building there. Now you can visit and see the whole history in one building. In addition there is a collection of literally buried treasure--a Jewish family buried their treasure including jewelry and coins before the massacre in 1349, and it remained there for hundreds of years. There are stunning pieces, perfectly preserved: stacks of medieval silver coins, massive silver ingots, a Jewish wedding ring, lovely brooches and belts and rings and all kinds of beautiful things. It was amazing to see.
Having spent the morning seeing how people can be terrible to one another, and yet life endures, we then went on to Weimar and then to Buchenwald for the afternoon. To walk through the site of a concentration camp that imprisoned and enslaved over 250,000 people, of whom over 50,000 died or were killed, was sobering. Buchenwald was, by the end of the war, the largest concentration camp in the system, but also one of the few that had no gas chambers. Instead people were literally worked to death building arms and more camps and other hard labor. Thousands of Soviet prisoners were shot by firing squad in a building set up just for that purpose. Thousands more people were killed by medical experimentation with nearly every major disease known to man. Thousands more starved. The conditions in the camp were so horrific, and the place was so overcrowded, that when the Allies arrived to liberate the camp there were still 21,000 people inside and General Eisenhower himself was among those who could not believe their eyes. The other 27,000 people who had been in the camp during the weeks leading up to liberation had been "evacuated"...sent on a death march away from the advancing Allied army.
Very few buildings remain at Buchenwald now. The gate, the crematorium, and the "de-lousing" building are there, as is the Depot that once was storage and now is a chilling museum containing thousands of artifacts of the camp, inmates, and SS. Most of the housing for guards is also still standing, but there are no prisoner barracks left, only foundations. But it doesn't take many buildings to feel the horror, the pain, the fear, the despair of the place. So much human suffering, and all of it caused by other humans. It was a stark reminder of what Reformed Theology calls Total Depravity: that human beings are sinful and capable of great evil, and when we are disconnected from God's grace we act more on our own brokenness. That brokenness is never more apparent than when standing in a place were 50,000 people were killed so brutally.
After spending a night reflecting on our human sinfulness, we moved on to Heidelberg. It is easily the prettiest little town in Germany...though to call it "little" is a bit of a misnomer, since it was probably the busiest place we've been so far. The streets were teeming with university students, military families, and people out enjoying the beautiful weather in a beautiful place. Heidelberg is the location of one of Luther's earliest disputations, when he tried to convince the church hierarchy of his theological convictions. It is also the place where Reformed theology---following more of Calvin's ideas than Luther's--began to take hold in Germany. In the late 1500s the prince of the area had Reformed leanings and he commissioned a catechism to help teach people the faith. The Heidelberg Catechism is still in our Book of Confessions today, and is one of the most beautiful expositions of 16th century Reformed theology. The first question of the catechism: "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" is answered with "That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful savior Jesus Christ" and sets the stage for teaching about God's grace as seen in our broken world and sinful lives, and how we respond in gratitude through following God's commands, answering God's call, and connecting to God in prayer.
In addition to being a really important place for our faith tradition, Heidelberg also has a castle ruin. And some beautiful old churches. And a hiking path that was walked by many scholars and poets and writers and artists and theologians, as they figured out the mysteries of the universe while walking in the woods. Up at the top of the hill there is a history going back to 5000BC, including a Celtic fortress, a 9th century monastery, an 11th century monastery, and a Nazi-built amphitheater that could propagandize 30,000 people at a time. Again the layers of history, and the layers of both beauty and horror, overlap in one place.
There is no prettier castle ruin in the world, though. (and the funicular railway used to reach it isn't bad either!)
Now we are on an ICE train, going 200km an hour through the southern German countryside, heading toward Geneva. We will spend the weekend there exploring John Calvin and his impact on the second wave of the Reformation, which became the Reformed tradition of which Presbyterians are a part. Sunday afternoon we will go our separate ways--some on to Italy for a vacation week, some to Paris, and I to Scotland to attend a conference about pilgrimage and how we can be pilgrims following Christ's call to holy walking in our daily lives. The forecast for Geneva is rainy, but since we have had a full week of sunshine all through Germany, we are trying not to be disappointed by that, even as we hope that the meteorologists are getting it wrong. :-)