“The most important and most beautiful service of the year”

Archbishop Cardinal Woelki celebrated the Easter Vigil with more than 200 faithful. In his sermon, he emphasizes that human life can become different through the Easter light and find a way out of a widespread disorientation.

For the "Gloria" there is the first goose bump moment. Cathedral organist Winfried Bonig always takes hold of the keys at this point and gets everything out of his instrument that is possible. It does not take much effort to imagine that the people of antiquity were shaken to their religious foundations by the news of the resurrection of Jesus as an event that was hardly comprehensible to them, and that one can still be emotionally moved by a comparably moving experience over 2000 years later. Because at the latest then – while at the same time the heavy ringing of the "Dicken Pitter" can be heard and the altar servers use the bells – every churchgoer knows: Now it is time. After a moving celebration of light in an otherwise completely dark cathedral, in which the many small candles that people hold in their hands are lost only like isolated landmarks in the vastness of the space, after a solemn procession of all clergy and seminarians from the Easter fire under the towers to the altar, the singing of the Exsultet and several readings from the Old and New Testaments, the joy of Easter can now be celebrated.

Then, all at once, it also becomes light, and a little later the Archbishop of Cologne intones the triple Easter Hallelujah. This is followed by the consecration of the water with which he sprinkles the congregation after the renewal of the baptismal promise. This finally flows into the center of the celebration of the Paschal Mystery: the Eucharist. These four parts – celebration of light, liturgy of the word, celebration of baptism and Eucharist – follow each other building on each other and at the same time mark a great arc of tension: from darkness to light, from death to life. In this way, the Church celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, with many individual rites and sacred signs, and proclaims his Second Coming.

Grateful for presence services

"Without a doubt the highlight of the year for me, the most important service of all, much more touching even than the Christmas Mass," enthuses Johannes Creeten. "Every time I hear the fat Pitter, tears automatically come to my eyes," said the 69-year-old, who was able to secure a front-row seat after queuing for a long time in front of the cathedral's main portal – there is only half an hour before the service begins that evening. He comes especially from Frechen and proudly points to a small pin on his jacket. For many years, he has been involved in his parish of St. Mauritius for the restoration of his church; for this he has been awarded the order "Pro ecclesia et pontifice". But more than ten years ago, Cologne Cathedral became his spiritual home, as he emphasizes. He comes here regularly every Sunday and on all high feasts.

"It is so impressive when the organ starts up again for the first time and the lights come on. Resurrection is simply not celebrated anywhere with such dignity," he thinks. "Here in the cathedral is the ecclesiastical life as I am used to it and have always lived it. That means a lot to me," explains Creeten, who was also a volunteer sexton for a long time. If possible, he would always be in the cathedral an hour before the beginning of the service. "Then I enjoy this silence and look forward to every single element that I recognize from my sexton work." He was simply glad and grateful that the masses at Easter would take place despite ongoing discussions about presence services.

Expressing support for the archbishop

Mario Schmitz led the queue waiting to be admitted to the cathedral for two hours. Already at 7 p.m. – two and a half hours before the start of the Easter Vigil – he arrived at the cathedral from Neuss. "I wanted a good seat," the young man justifies his perseverance, which is also rewarded with a good view of the sanctuary in the front row. He comes to Cologne every year for the Easter Vigil from the Quirinus parish in Neuss, "if only because I want to hear my favorite bell here," as he says. "And I always have my own Easter candle blessed by the cardinal on this occasion. It burns then the whole year with us at home."He brings them to his mother, because she can no longer be there herself.

Gertrud Lutterbach and her friend Maria Bota appreciate the extraordinarily solemn liturgy of the nightly service in the cathedral, but they also consciously want to set a sign of solidarity. "At these special times, we are committed to supporting our archbishop in his ministry and expressing that with our participation."The two older ladies are visibly pleased that they can be there live again this year and do not have to watch everything from the screen, as they did in 2020. "Even though this year it was again temporarily to be feared that this impressive Easter experience would only take place online," says Lutterbach.

Easter jubilation turns out clearly more restrained

This is how it will be for many who booked their tickets early enough for this Easter service and who now consider themselves lucky to be among the few who can celebrate the Mass in the cathedral on the 172 designated seats. More – as on this evening – become it only if spouses or families announce themselves, which may sit then together in a bank. Nevertheless the valid distance and hygiene regulations affect not only optically the total picture. The Easter cheer, which is usually expressed by several thousand visitors, but also in many fervent hymns sung by the congregation, is much more restrained. Domvikar Jorg Stockem has pointed out before the beginning of the mass once again urgently that the congregational singing exclusively the ten singers of the girls' choir under the direction of Domkantor Sperling take over and the congregation on "self-acting singing along" therefore may do without. Everyone sticks to this, even if it's hard and you're tempted to hum one or two popular hymns.

And also the many empty pews, to which one has already become accustomed somehow, make once more painfully visible, how much is actually missing, if the celebration of the most important celebration of Christianity in presence remains reserved only for a few. Even in the sanctuary it is not as crowded as usual. Not only is Auxiliary Bishop Steinhauser the only representative of the bishops who usually stand at the altar, but the number of concelebrating cathedral chaplains is reduced by several clergymen.

Living as paschal people in everyday life

It is an Easter under special circumstances. This resonates noticeably in this Easter Vigil 2021 and provides subliminally also for a little melancholy with one or the other visitor. The pandemic with all its restrictions and limitations is only one aspect of the event. The ongoing debate, especially in the media, about the role of Cardinal Woelki in the context of the publication of the abuse report and the current wave of church resignations also give the impression – in both senses of the word – of much softer tones. "Everything was beautiful and super solemn, but I lacked the exuberant joy that belongs to Easter, and also a certain lightness. Everyone seems so depressed," says someone leaving the cathedral after Mass.

Previously, Archbishop Woelki had once again focused on the essentials in his closing remarks. He declares: Peace be with you – with this greeting the Risen Lord met his disciples. "This should also be the greeting we receive in this hour from the Risen Lord: the peace, the unity, the reconciliation that he gives between God and man and between men. We have celebrated the most important, significant and beautiful service of the church," he emphasizes. Now it was a matter of "living what we have celebrated here in our everyday lives as Easter people: out of the joy of faith, out of the joy of Easter. And to tell people that God knows about them, he loves and knows everyone, he redeems everyone and that God is waiting for them. In this joy, confidence and hope, we want to ask God to make us blessed and a blessing for many people."

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