We’ve been doing a lot of sinning lately, don’t you think? Sure, most are lazy sins, like poisoning our water and hating immigrants and trying to take health care from women. It’s easy when there are no faces. The sins get a little more complicated when we are about to stone our next-door neighbor. The trouble arises not from the stoning, but because we are a little conflicted. I mean, the neighbors did bring little smokies to the block party, didn’t they? And they do keep their Winnebago out of sight behind their garage, right? But can you be sure they’re not Democrats? Or not Republicans? Or not Muslims? Or not Christians? Or not Jews? Or even that the “she,” who is so nice and personable, is not formerly a “he”? It gets so confusing without name tags.
And I haven’t even gotten to the collapse of the Hawkeyes in the second half of their basketball season, even though several fans, not me of course, offered to sacrifice close family members to turn the season around. See? We have become first-rate sinners, deserving of just a splash of hell fire.
Which is why we have indulgences.
An indulgence is a little like good and honor time after you’ve been sent to prison for, say, hiding your money in Panama. An indulgence is simple: it reduces the time you serve for your sins. For example, in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, one of several amazing museums in Cologne, Germany, there is a medieval painting of Christ with a long prayer beneath it. The museum describes the written words of the painting as follows:
“The subsequent explanation promises the sinful believer a remission of no less than 27,000 years and 36 days in the period spent suffering the torments of Purgatory if he recites this prayer combined with five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.”
This is genius. And I particularly like the “36 days.” You know, it’s that last part of a long trip. The first 27,000 years go by fairly quickly, but then you have that painful two-hour ride from Omaha. The 36 days takes care of that.
But a pilgrimage is the real Star Wars of indulgences. Something where you pack up and leave the comfort of your home in the East Village, or Beaverdale, or Pleasant Hill, and by this very act of leaving, you change your sinful behavior.
I have just the pilgrimage for you.
First, a little preamble. We’re talking bones here, folks. The bones in question were found and stored by St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mom, sometime around the year 330, when she was scavenging in the Holy Land for the true cross and other relics for her son. Several hundred years later, the bones made their way to Milan for safe keeping. Finally, in 1164, the bones were given as a thank-you gift to the Archbishop of Cologne for providing an army to the Holy Roman Emperor. And now, here they sit in the Cologne Cathedral. Resplendent in a golden shrine. Viewed by six million visitors a year. No kidding. The actual bones of the Magi.
Of course, you may not know of the Magi, or perhaps you know of them as the Three Kings, or the Three Wise Men, or, if you’re on a first-name basis, Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar. The Magi actually occupy only 16 verses in the Book of Matthew. There’s no other mention of them in the New Testament. We know they came from the East, they followed a star, they brought gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, and they triggered Herod to order a minor massacre of young baby boys in the Bethlehem area. Their story resulted in Christmas carols, a bad movie or two, and tons of parody. But, the trek to Cologne, Germany, is a honest-to-God holy pilgrimage, and has been since 1164. That’s a long line of people stretching over the years to see Magi bones and to receive the indulgences from such a visit.
So, being a sinner, and to encourage you to go on such a pilgrimage, I went to check it out.
The Cologne Cathedral wipes out the southern sky the moment you walk out of the central train station. Its turrets and flying buttresses and statutes and bronze doors all force your head back and your jaw to drop. It is impossible to take it all in. As the largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe, it does not disappoint. And the inside, with vaulted ceilings and altars and candles and statutes and paintings and the smell of incense, only gets better.
And then there are the bones. Way at the front in their golden case. One of dozens of miraculous sights inside the Cathedral. It is truly a moving, awe-inspiring, drop-to-your-knees experience. Unbelievable.
But, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to some of you, it doesn’t work for me. I still felt the lick of flames coursing up my legs even when standing a few feet from the bones themselves. Yup, the Magi have no indulgences headed my way.
So, out the Cathedral I walk with my wife, resigned, aware of my fate, heavy of step — although a small part of me still wondered if maybe Lourdes Water might be the real answer.
But then we hear wonderful music. An intricate Beethoven string quartet echoing across the plaza at the side of the Cathedral. Beautiful. Haunting. Seductive. Five street performers, on instruments Beethoven never envisioned — two accordions, one violin, one concert tuba, and one something with a deep and rich sound that must be from another world.
“This is balalaika double bass. There are five balalaikas. This is the largest.” Valery smiles at me with his red-numbed face and heavily Russian-accented English. They’ve been performing on the square for already too long this cold day, but Valery patiently answers my questions.
“I study for accordion and balalaika in Russia. We have orchestra for Russian folk instrument, and in this orchestra I play balalaika.”
And where do you go after this performance?
“We go to Poland. We make money this way.”
And so they do. They play Pachebel’s Canon as a crowd pleaser and then pack up for Poland. Performance over.
But the sound of their music remains, floating against the hard walls of the Cathedral, up the jagged Gothic towers, across the broad, cobblestone plaza, and back down to settle deep inside your throat, leaving a taste of rich earthiness. Precise, achingly clear, beguiling.
And that is enough for my pilgrimage. Off I wander to drink German beer, whisper things to my wife, and think about the balalaika double bass and its reverberating deepness.
And the bones of the Magi? Mmmm . . . perhaps they spoke after all.