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THE NEXT DAY-Thursday, October second—passed in Rundschau as if it were a dream. Work wasn’t done. Everyone sat in their homes and wouldn’t set foot outside. Shutters stayed closed on many windows.
Everyone was waiting for someone to get sick.
No one did.
In the morning Lothar drove his sheep—including his extra flock—into the mountains. In the evening he drove them back home.
At dawn on the morning of October third, a surprise awaited us. For the first time in living memory, even among old-timers, the tolling of the parish church’s bell summoned worshipers to mass not on Sunday, but Friday.
Under other circumstances, eight or ten people might have come to find out what was going on, then return to tell their neighbors. But the threat of plague was on every mind. The bell’s ringing had hardly ceased when the church’s huge main hall was filled.
My eyes searched the somber crowd and found Lothar Lange. Instead of driving out his sheep, he’d come to the church like everyone else. I was relieved that Lothar’s appearance showed no hint of sickness.
Lothar saw me as well. “What’s going on?” his eyes asked. I raised an eyebrow to answer: “We find out soon enough.”
Farther across the crowd I spotted August Genscher the weaver, so grim-faced that it nearly startled me. Standing beside him, resting her head on his shoulder, was his daughter Veronika. Her expression held a solemn helplessness that was unutterably sweet to me.
I knew that no one here wondered if the bell had been rung by mistake. The faces around me were as sorrowfully anxious as I’d ever seen in this place. With the plague having devoured Waldheim, Rundschau’s residents surely anticipated being called any moment before the Lord to answer for their sins. If the parish priest thought a Friday morning mass was a proper prelude for this—well, so be it.
As the last arriving villagers squeezed into the hushed congregation, my eyes went to where they often did on Sunday mornings here. First, to a large wooden statue of the Virgin Mary to the left of the altar, carved long ago by an unknown master. Our Lady stood clad in a dark blue mantle and white head covering, her head mournfully lowered, her hands folded on her breast. Over her hands the woodcarving master had placed her heart, enveloped in flames and enclosed in a crown of thorns. The crown was real—woven of real thorns, as a full-sized replica of the one that Roman soldiers had thrust upon the head of our Savior in the court of their Praetorium in Jerusalem.
I glanced next to my right—to a recess in the south wall that bore a fresco depicting the Passion of Christ. It had been painted before I was born, the gift of some eminent nobleman from far away who’d commissioned a German artist for this work. In my childhood years, if I became bored (gracious Lord, forgive me) during the sermon, my eye would examine this fresco, and over time I committed its features to memory. Even now, I can easily recall these details.
Under a scarlet sky, before whitewashed Jerusalem walls, a strange procession moves. In the picture’s center is our thorn-crowned Savior bent beneath the weight of the cross. He’s surrounded by a dense crowd in which one can discern every sort of modern person. In one spot, for example, is a pompous nobleman wearing a golden chain, a sable-collared velvet waistcoat, and a gaudily feathered beret. Nearby, a merchant sports on his belt a purse overflowing with gold coin. And there’s a soldier—representing a Roman centurion apparently, but wearing the blackened steel armor of the Canton Guard, complete with rooster-plumed helmet, and hoisting a cruel-bladed halberd.
All their faces wear ugly sneers. Here in general, only the countenance of the Lord breathes peace and beauty; except for him, the entire procession is depicted as a parade of scowling freaks.
Ugliest of all is the face of the person in the fresco who always arrested my attention most: someone purple-robed, with a red three-cornered cap crowning a tonsure—a bishop! His visage is horribly contorted—a grimace instead of a face. This figure once appeared to me in a nightmare clouded by sulfur smell, and he suggested we take a trip to hell, where room had been reserved for sinners such as me.
A sound broke off my reflections upon the fresco; close by, the door of the sacristy opened, and out came our priest, Reverend Theodor Riechmann, accompanied by Deacon Andreas Vogt.
Father Theodor, short and nimble, was in his black cassock. Today, as often before, his wispy white hair reminded me of a dandelion’s fluff.
As we all stood, his opening words were brief. “Today, my children, is Friday, the day of the Lord’s Passion. Let us pray.” He nodded to Deacon Vogt, turned to the altar, and started the mass.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…”
“Amen,” we responded.
As the sacred words continued, I began thinking how good it was that Father Theodor had called us here two days ahead of schedule. Yesterday everyone had been paralyzed with fear—the village seemed dead already, before plague had touched a single soul here. It was terrible to imagine what could happen if this lethargic consternation lasted another day or two. We might have become an unmanageable herd, crazed with terror, but Father Theodor would not let this happen. Rundschau indeed had a shepherd, a good and firm shepherd who would not abandon his flock.
We listened to the Latin litany; we sang along where we could. I again looked at faces around me. The expressions were becoming more composed, more sober and sensible. Little by little, these villagers began looking human again—more like the face of Christ in the fresco.
The communion went by, and we sang. Father Theodor reminded us that whatever might come to pass, we must always do the same: praise the Lord for his mercy. After the final blessing, while everyone waited for Father Theodor to dismiss us, he had another surprise. He closed the prayer book and fixed upon us his small, kind eyes.
“My children.” He spoke in German. “I thank you for coming today to the call of the old bell. I ask you now to be seated and listen carefully; I want to give a sermon.”
If he wants a sermon, so be it. We all sat down.
“Children,” uttered Father Theodor. His voice made me feel like a child again; I was sure others around me felt the same—even the giant blacksmith, Karl Reinecke; even old Jürgen, Lothar Lange’s foster father, old enough to be his grandfather. “Children, you see what is happening. In lands and countries all around, our brothers and sisters have been dying, while we in Rundschau thoughtlessly wasted the days allotted us by our good Lord. Now the calamity has arrived on our doorstep. Linden is struck down. Waldheim, whose residents were dear to many of us, is wiped out, along with those who fled there for sanctuary but brought death instead.
“We’re surrounded on all sides. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps the next day, the fatal spark may flare up in our homes too.”
His voice reverberated beneath the church’s vaulted ceiling. “Nevertheless, my children, we must not lose heart. Hard times are sent to test the endurance of our faith. I rang the bell, and you came—which bears witness that faith indeed is still in your hearts. Nevertheless, for many of you, inner strength nears the point of exhaustion. So, what should we do?”
What should we do?—this was the question tormenting us all. Had God in his mercy revealed to Father Theodor a way out? A way out meant hope. Or at least a meaningful death, if no hope remained.
As the sermon paused, the church was so quiet, I could hear the faint crackle of candlewicks. I took a breath and looked around. From habit, I glanced again to the fresco, to the peaceful countenance of the Lord. A question returned that I’d contemplated for years: How was it possible to maintain such an inspired and detached look while carrying one’s own cross to one’s own execution, surrounded by such terrible grimaces?
Father Theodor continued. He was speaking in his usual manner: loudly, but sincerely and intimately. “I admit the plague has frightened me no less than you. I fully recognize—as you may—that if our sins were measured, they would outweigh the worst possible punishment, and many times over. God, however, does not desire the sinner’s death, but rather wishes him to repent and live.
“Although we cannot discover how many more days the Lord has measured out for our lives, it is in our power to prove our repentance. Repentance is our mightiest weapon against the devil, who has been allowed to harm Christian folk with plagues and all possible misfortunes. Cities and kingdoms crash and fall before him. Death marches through the world like a victorious army of the evil one. Is there anything that might halt this onslaught?”
Again he paused at length. Again my eye went to the fresco. Years ago, when I’d grown up a bit, Father Riechmann explained to me this painting’s secret meaning. At Golgotha the Savior was followed by every human sin—including pride (the nobleman), greed (the merchant), and manslaughter (the soldier). And as for that hideous bishop—well, the most horrible sin of all was that of the Pharisees: their profanation of the Holy Spirit, when they accused our blessed Savior of deadly sins, declaring his power to be from Beelzebub, for which they condemned him to death. And the leading Pharisee was Caiaphas—who was, as it were, Jerusalem’s bishop. It was he who was depicted by the brush of the German master.
Father Theodor’s voice deepened. “As this plague advances, can anything—anything whatsoever—be done?
“My children, all day Wednesday I splattered the floor of my cell with tears and beseeched our merciful Lord with my question. That night, in the darkest hours, it dawned on me. And I could hardly believe it myself—how could I have missed such a simple answer?”
He raised his hand. He held a small gilded crucifix.
“The cross!” he said, his voice ringing out. “The gospel’s power! Our weapon of victory over death, our hope of redemption, our gateway to resurrection and eternal life!
“This moment when Satan seems triumphant, when the sheep of Christ’s flock fall by thousands into his open jaws—what would vex our enemy most, and bring joy to our merciful Savior at the same time? Praising the holy and living cross!
“My children, the devil in his pride considers this world his own, subject to his power. But it has been saved on the cross by our Redeemer—our Lord who is forever the King! Therefore our duty is to never lose heart over hell’s apparent triumph, but to resolutely proclaim the Lord’s victory, as is fitting for Christ’s warriors and knights.
“You and I are simple sinners, but within our souls—by the grace of God—abides love for Jesus Christ, who died for our sins on the cross. This love gives us ultimate joy, even in our worst affliction. In sickness, in torment, in temptation, if you and I will keep our love for Christ and for each other, and preserve a joyful spirit—then through us, the Lord is victorious and the devil overcome. This is the mystery of the cross.”
Yet once more, Father Theodor paused. All around me, people sat eagerly erect. What was coming next?
“When I remembered all this,” he continued, “my soul was filled with such jubilation that I ran to Deacon Andreas to share with him my revelation. We prayed together, considering what we must do. In such a dark time for our little village, how could we glorify the redeeming cross of Christ? We sat and talked about the Passion of the Lord, and we wept.
“And then I, my children—surprising even myself—made a suggestion to Deacon Andreas. What if all of us together were to actually resurrect the events of the Passion of our blessed Jesus Christ—in real life, so to speak? We thought this over—and decided to put it to your judgment. Here’s what we propose.”
Father Theodor caught his breath. We were all ears; something unheard of, it seemed, was about to unfold.
“Together you and I—the residents of the village of Rundschau, District of Rundschau, Canton of Schwarzwald—right here, in the streets of our village, shall present and reenact the sacred events described in the Gospels of the Passion of our Savior.”
Solemnly, he went on: “With God’s help, we shall bring before his eyes—and the eyes of all good people—the divine act called the Mysteria, which we will dedicate to the glory of our crucified Lord! This is how we’ll defeat the evil one!”
For a moment, silence reigned under the church’s vault.
Then everyone started speaking at once.