The Palm Sunday of my youth was typically a more fun affair than most church services: everyone receives a palm upon entering, a few enterprising children try to whack their siblings using their newfound blessed greenery, and get promptly removed to the back of the church. Me? I was always pondering: "what would it be like to ride a donkey?" as any true child of the suburbs would. My reflections as an adult are more circumspect. It's far more about the paths taken and not taken and who joins you for these journeys rather than the potentially uncomfortable form of transportation.
Paths aren't just physical roads connecting one place to another. They can be mental, related to jobs or life choices, or emotional connections between people. Straight out of graduate school, I didn't expect a new job in medical devices to lead me somewhere more connected to my love of music, but I heard a colleague mention somewhat tongue-in-cheek 'oh and eventually you'll have the great pleasure to visit Germany in January.' I later found out that this wasn't just Germany. It was Leipzig. And no one at work quite understood my excitement. "It's Bach! I mean, how could you not want to visit where he played organ??"
A few years ago, pre-covid, I was thrilled to take my first trip to Leipzig. I stayed a day past the conference and spent several hours sitting in solitude in St. Thomas Church and St. Nicholas Church. I listened to organists practice scales, half-caught small snippets of hushed German from tour guides, and thought to myself with delight that I could not believe I was there, in the place where Bach himself had spent so many years as kapellmeister. I imagined him in an analogous manner to music directors in my past — a little harried, but still making it just in time to start the service.
I took some time to read more about the churches from their English-language pamphlets; St. Thomas was what you'd expect: though the ceiling was mostly an undecorated white, the remainder of the church was Baroque; heavy wood, resonant, with an equally storied history. St. Nicholas, though, had been renovated in the neoclassical style in the late 1700s in shades of creams, pinks, and light greens, a very surprising light and bright contrast to the grey skies of January.
Even more startling was learning that St. Nicholas was the center of the peaceful Monday demonstrations against communism that began in 1989 and eventually led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1991. As I had been born only a few years earlier, this wasn't really part of my history curriculum growing up, and hearing about the prayers for peace movement conducted within the state policy of atheism in communist East Germany felt both removed from the current period and all too familiar.
The paths that led to and from me sitting in this church on a glorious Friday afternoon in January, the paths that had led to and from protestors in the late 1980s to sit quietly in pews and sparking the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paths that Bach took to and from churches in Leipzig between services and his work as a composer — as in the final lines of the chorus of this Palm Sunday cantata, these paths were full of love and sorrow, no one was alone. They opened the world before us.