Tag Archives: Oberammergau

Defenestration of Prague & The Thirty Years War

My wife and I had the privilege of traveling in Europe for three weeks. Six countries: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Italy. Seven, if you include an airplane switch in Zurich, Switzerland.

The main event was to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, in southern Germany. But it was followed by an 8-day cruise down the Danube, from Regensburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. But what I want to blog about here is something I saw the next three days after the cruise, while touring in Prague, in the Czech Republic. So, make this the third post, in a multipart series looking at church history in Europe.

The Defenestration Window, at Prague Castle, where the Thirty Years War began. Several Roman Catholic representatives of the royal governorship were pushed out of the top window of this building, in protest over mistreatment of Protestant subjects.

The Prague Castle is a large complex of buildings overlooking the capital city of today’s Czech Republic, Prague. I had to ask our Czech guide where to find this particular spot, but I was interested in learning where the Thirty Years War technically started. I found it and took the snapshot above.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated Europe. For nearly a century after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at the Wittenberg Church, the Protestant Reformation led to upheaval nearly all over the continent. Europe became divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas. The basic way this all happened was that each particular monarch or city-state would essentially declare what form of Christian worship would be permitted within that particular territory.

This was several centuries before the American Founding Fathers enshrined the concept of religious freedom within a governing document, so there was no room for dissension from any government decision. In other words, whatever the government decided the form of worship should be in a particular territory, then people living in that territory must comply…. or else!

But by 1618, the whole solution became unmanageable. For example, let us say that one particular sovereign declared their land or country to be Roman Catholic. There still were wealthy landowners in that country who were persuaded of the Protestant cause. Would they be forced to worship in a Roman Catholic Church? What about church lands that were being stewarded by certain benefactors? Would the right to earn monies from farming being done on those lands be taken away from benefactors with Protestant convictions?  The same type of questions would come up for Roman Catholics living in Protestant areas.

Once one’s personal convictions began to impact the pocketbook, then frustration easily resulted. It did and had serious consequences in 1618, when political power brokers got involved. Some 7% of the land in Central Europe was at one time property of the medieval church, much of it stewarded by church benefactors, which fits in this ambiguous category, which caused all sorts of tension throughout Europe.

The tension came to a head when a group of Protestant landowners met with royal governing authorities representing the Habsburg royal family, who were advocates for the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation efforts in Bohemia, surrounding Prague. Protestantism had grown greatly in Bohemia, dating back to the days of Jan Hus and his protests in the early 15th century. Instead, the Habsburgs wanted to reinstitute Roman Catholic worship throughout their realm, and Prague was under the domain of the soon-to-be new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II. Several Protestant leaders protested against the Habsburg policies and were subsequently arrested. When the Habsburg governors were challenged to release the prisoners, the governors refused to budge.

On May 23, 1618, these Protestant landowners staged a mass demonstration at Prague Castle. They argued with the royal governors, and pushed three Roman Catholic representatives out the third story of window of Prague Castle (above where I am standing in the photo above). This is known as one of the Defenestrations of Prague, in which “defenestrate” means to push someone out of a window.

Depiction of the Defenestration of Prague that precipitated the start of the Thirty Years War.

To the benefit of the victims, they survived the fall. My guide told me one version of the story, that they were saved by landing in a pile of manure at the bottom of the building below the window. That is probably the Protestant version of the story, as another version says that the Virgin Mary miraculously intervened and saved the men from their deaths. Nevertheless, and needless to say, the Roman Catholic governing authorities were not thrilled by this action. Both sides left the meeting intent on building up armies.

Two years later, the Protestant forces were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain, which effectively ended the Protestant revolt in Bohemia. But it was merely the first of many conflicts throughout Central Europe. Eventually, the Thirty Years War evolved from being a Protestant/Catholic conflict to a very complicated affair with alliances that crossed confessional boundaries, intent on settling old scores and exacerbating rivalries. Armies as far as Sweden rushed in across Central Europe, spreading disease with the troop movements, even threatening the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau (the topic of the first blog post in this series).

By the time the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, very little had changed in terms of who controlled what and where. The whole region was exhausted of war. Religious concerns gave way to nationalistic concerns, as the unity of the Holy Roman Empire had effectively crumbled, and different nation/states had formed all across Europe.

Roughly one out of four Europeans had been killed by either disease or battle. Tired of religious disputes, the European world had by then become preoccupied with nationalistic aims and concerns, and the days of European colonialism were in full swing, as new areas across the world, from India to the Americas, gained the attention of Europeans hoping to extend the influence of their native lands and cultures… and take their minds off of intra-European issues. Europe would not experience another major military calamity until Napoleon campaigned across these same lands in the name of Enlightenment nationalism in the early 19th century.

Gone were the days when a united Christian faith, at least under the oversight of the church in Rome, held the glue together for Western society. Denominationalism has since become the defining factor of the Western church.

You can still feel a sense of the Thirty Years War’s impact in the Czech Republic. Another Czech tour guide told me that there is a tragic connection between the religious strife of the Thirty Years War and the loss of Christian faith among most Czech people. For example, according to a 2021 census, for 70 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 48 percent held none, 10 percent were Roman Catholic, 13 percent listed no specific religion, and 9 percent identified with a variety of religious faiths, Protestant evangelical being among that last group. For a country which was once the cradle of Gospel-driven Christianity in Europe in the 15th century, that is a sad statistic.

Lessons learned: denominationalism was never intended by God to happen in Christ’s church. But the combination of denominationalism and forced religious observance of a particular denomination is a recipe for disaster. Be thankful for religious freedom!! Nevertheless, we should use that freedom to engage in dialogue with other believers in Jesus, who do not read the Bible exactly the way we do. Better to learn how to have “impossible conversations” than trying to settle theological and worldview issues with weapons that kill!!!

My “postcard” photo of Prague Castle, looking across the river, with the famous Charles Bridge in front. Click on the photo to get the full impact. You can make out the “defenestration” window, just below the middle of where the cathedral is.


Prague’s Jan Hus: The Reformation Before Luther

One of the things I was excited about visiting Prague the most was learning more about Jan Hus. On this Reformation Day, I thought it appropriate to remember Jan Hus, and make a second blog post about the trip that my wife and I took to Europe this past October, to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany.

Jan Hus Memorial in the Old Town Square. Prague, Czech Republic.

Jan Hus is a hero in the modern day Czech Republic. Czechs remember him as a courageous individual who stood up against the system. Hus was crushed for his efforts, but a lot Czech history was about being crushed by institutional powers. The story of Hus has inspired resistance efforts in the pursuit of freedom. At the end of World War One, the Czechs were able to throw off centuries of rule by the Habsburg Empire, which included an imposed Roman Catholicism and closing of Protestant churches. In 1938, the Western powers abandoned the Czech nation and delivered it into the hands of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, for the sake of an appeasement that never lasted. After that war, the Czechs eventually threw off the yoke of the Communist Soviet Union, by the early 1990s. Jan Hus has been an inspiration during each cycle.

Sadly, the Christian convictions that underpinned the spirit of Jan Hus have often been neglected in the story. In the early 15th century, Jan Hus was a priest who was able to get his hands on the writings of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe exposed Hus to the very ideas that eventually captivated the mind and heart of the German Reformer, Martin Luther, almost exactly one hundred years later.

However, the printing press had not been invented yet. It would be another 40 years before the Gutenberg Bible would roll off the first printing press. Luther used the new media technology, the 16th century version of the Internet’s social media, to great effect. Jan Hus, on the other hand, had no such media outlet. With no 15th century equivalent of Twitter or Instagram available to him, Jan Hus had very little resources available to advance his message.

The monument stands as a symbol for resistance in the face of tyranny…. but it also stands for the principles of the Reformation, for the Scriptures that Jan Hus sought to teach the people.

In 1414, the popular Prague preacher was summoned to the Council of Constance, to report on what he had been teaching the people of Prague in his sermons. Hus was given a promise of safe conduct, that he not be harmed if he appeared before the council to defend his views about the Bible. He had been preaching to the people in the native Czech language, and not in Latin. He had championed the full authority of the Scriptures, and spoke out against church traditions that he believe contradicted the Bible. He taught that no bishop or pope had the right to call up men to take up arms against others in the name of the church, a direct critique of the Crusading mentality. He believed that Christians should be able to take communion in both kinds, the bread and the wine. He spoke out against indulgences. In many ways, Jan Hus was the Luther before Luther.

For these type of things, Jan Hus was deemed a heretic at the Council of Constance, which forfeited him the right of safe passage to Constance. Hus had been deceived. So much for such promises, heh??  On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake.

Hus’ Czech listeners back in Prague were furious. What followed was the Hussite Wars, and eventually the Bohemian church enjoyed a measure of autonomy within the medieval church, joining up to a certain degree with the Protestant efforts of the German and Swiss Reformers, a hundred years later.

As our time in Prague was near the end of our trip to Europe, I was not able to make it over to Jan Hus’ church, Bethlehem Chapel. But I did get to see the great monument sculptured in his honor. The work of the artist, Ladislav Šaloun, was officially unveiled in the main town square of Prague, at the end of World War I, when the first Czech Republic was founded. The sculpture was completed just a few years earlier, at the 500th anniversary of Hus’ martyrdom (1915).

Ironically, the monument in the square stands between two large churches. One church had been a Protestant church, which is now Roman Catholic, and the other had been a Roman Catholic church, and is now Protestant. The main message carved in the monument is “Truth Prevails.”

Though Jan Hus was surely a forerunner to the Protestant Reformation, he differed from the later Reformers on certain matters. While his theological mentor, John Wycliffe, denied the medieval Western doctrine of transubstantiation, Jan Hus was actually okay with transubstantiation. Hus affirmed the real presence of Christ in the communion elements, but he was adamant that Christians be given the opportunity to receive both the bread AND the wine in the Lord’s Supper, in a day when the church generally withheld the wine from the congregation.

So, in some ways, Hus occupied a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and the later 16th century Reformers, like Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther, who all rejected transubstantiation, but who moreover differed among themselves regarding how to think of the Last Supper. In this sense, Hus stands as a model for seeing a type of third-way through the Roman Catholic / Protestant divide. See my previous blogs posts about Jan Hus on Veracity (#1 and #2) for more.

Regardless of what one thinks about the nature of the Last Supper, it is clear that many of the reforms that Jan Hus argued for were surely needed in the medieval church. Sadly, Jan Hus came along at a time when the church was not completely ready to hear his message. However, in 1999, a symposium on Hus was held in Rome where Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for his “cruel death” and praised him for his “moral courage.”On this Reformation Day, we would do well to consider the contribution of Jan Hus to restore our faith to a truly Biblical Christianity.

Several messages are displayed, but the one at the front is roughly translated: “You love the truth that everybody desires”


Oberammergau – The Passion Play

My wife and I originally planned to spend our 20th wedding anniversary a year early by taking a trip to Europe to view the Passion Play in Oberammergau, in southern Germany. COVID delayed all of those plans, but we were able to go this year when the Passion Play was rescheduled for 2022.

I learned about Oberammergau from my mom’s cousin, Lee Southard, who went to see the Passion Play when it was presented in 2010.  He told me that we should definitely make an effort to go see it. Lee was right.

The Oberammergau production does not allow photography during the performance, so I got this from their website. The Passion Play, performed once every ten years in Oberammergau, southern Germany, is an incredibly moving experience.

As the legendary story goes, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated the whole of continental Europe. Originally, the Thirty Years War had its genesis in the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (a topic which I will cover in a future blog post). During that period, armies criss-crossed Central Europe in an attempt to redefine national boundaries, at least originally along theological commitment lines, though it got more complicated as time wore on. But along with these armies came the plague.

In 1633, the plague finally struck the small village of Oberammergau, nestled in the foothills of the southern Germany’s Alps. Half of the village’s population, about 81, died within about a month. The fathers of the village vowed that if God would spare the town further deaths that they would put on a “Passion Play,” retelling the last week of Jesus’ life, once every 10 years, as long as the town would endure.

From that moment on, there was no more death from the plague in Oberammergau.

Passion plays have been part of European history for a long time, but what makes Oberammergau unique is how these townspeople kept this pledge. Despite some fudgy-ness with the above details, Obermmergau kept their pledge, by ultimately settling on performing the play once every decadal year. Only a few times, such as around World War I and II, did they miss or delay their performance. When COVID hit in early 2020, they postponed the play until 2022. Other than that, once a decade, you can visit Oberammergau and witness the performance. Thousands travel from all over the world to see the play.

 

Oberammergau is a small town in Bavaria, Southern Germany, with a big name. Thousands come every ten years for the Passion Play (My wife is standing off in the corner, to the right)


You have to be a resident of Oberammergau to perform in the play, which means that nearly everyone is an amateur… hundreds of them! Plus, there are live animals going across the stage (including camels!!), and everyone wears long hair, with terrific costuming. The play is 5-hours in length, with a dinner intermission in the late afternoon. But the familiar story is so gripping the way it is presented, it does not feel like you are there quite that long. It helped to have an English copy of the script in hand, as all of the dialogue is in German.

My wife and I caught the last weekend of the performance in early October, and as the theater is open air, it got pretty cold. I got a head cold that very night as a result. This was the first stop on a Viking tour that she and I took, that concluded with an 8-day cruise down the Danube from Regensburg to Budapest (more blogs articles on that to come!).

The most controversial part of the play is the history surrounding how anti-semitism made its way into the play script over the centuries. Adolf Hitler saw the play and loved it when it was performed in the off year of 1934, so that might tell you something. Hitler’s review went like this: “It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans.” 

Yikes.

Not too long after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church called for changes to be made to the Passion Play. A new young director, Christian Stückl, in 1986 assumed the task of revising the script, that had remained largely unchanged since the early 19th century. Over the past thirty years or so, efforts have been made to rid the story of anti-semitic elements not found in the Gospels, and I think they did a very good job in doing so. The current version makes it clear that while the Jewish leadership, symbolized by the office of the Jewish High Priest, engineered the fate of Jesus, it was the Roman government, through the office of Pontius Pilate who possessed the actual power to crucify in first-century Judea.

The most challenging and frankly refreshing interpretation for me was in the portrayal of Judas Iscariot. In the Oberammergau interpretation, Judas is contrasted with Peter a lot. Peter comes off like you would think he would, someone who has great confidence in Jesus, but then who shamefully denies Jesus when things get tough, three times.

The Oberammergau stage prior to the beginning of the performance, around 2pm. It was a rainy, cold afternoon, so I am glad that the open-air theater had a roof!

Judas, however, comes across differently than I had thought of him before, but I think Oberammergau got it right. Judas is portrayed as a Zealot, who was trying to force Jesus to reveal himself as the militant Messiah, ready to pick up the Davidic banner and exert his Kingship and kick the Romans out of Palestine. Judas goes to the Jewish leadership, looking for a way to force Jesus to act, by pointing out Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. But when Jesus fails to act and it looks like execution lies ahead for Jesus, Judas realizes that he had made a huge mistake. Judas confronts the High Priest, Caiaphas, for deceiving him, but the damage was already done. Judas cannot forgive himself, and rejects the offer of silver pieces from the Jewish leadership as irrelevant in his struggle with guilt. Instead of coming across like the Devil, Judas instead looks like a disillusioned revolutionary, who eventually commits suicide in his shame.

A lot of invented characters carry the plot along, along with additional plot elements to tie the story together. Advisors to Caiaphas, the High Priest, have dialogues that show the precarious situation that the Jewish leadership was in. Jesus had to be stopped for if Jesus did reveal himself as the full-blown military Messiah, then surely the Roman government would come in and crush the Jews, including their leadership. Faced between the alternatives of having Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans (which ultimately happened in 70 A.D., anyway), versus derailing Jesus’ public ministry, Caiaphas felt he had no other choice but the latter.

At the crucifixion, Mary cradles the dead Jesus, a tip towards Roman Catholic theology regarding Mary.

As a break between scenes, a choir came out, supplemented by a great orchestra, and different still scenes from the Old Testament were displayed and described in song, that really helped to frame the story of Christ’s Passion. The banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the story of Cain and Abel, and various scenes from the Exodus with Moses really stood out for me.

About 10:30pm at night, the drama of the Passion Play comes to a close. The stage is left with the empty cross.

In a surprise twist at the end, the Passion Play does not give us a Resurrected visit from Jesus. The play basically follows the brief outline given by the Gospel of Mark, which has no appearance of the Resurrected Jesus, only an Empty Tomb (unless you read from a King James Version Bible). Once Jesus is buried after the Crucifixion, we never see Jesus again, and yet the message of the angel at the tomb gives the women hope and confidence that Jesus is indeed alive. Just like modern interpretations of the passion, like the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus is never presented in visible form.

The evangelical theological convictions in me finds this to be immensely disappointing, since without a Resurrection appearance, the whole story misses the whole point. Though one could argue that it would be difficult to do justice in making some believable Resurrection appearance work in a live stage production, without it feeling a bit hokey. About a month before we were in Oberammergau, New Testament theologian Ben Witherington saw the play and walked away with a similar perspective.

Aside from that, the whole production was great. The dinner meal was a total bonus as well. Plus, my wife and I had great seats! Just a few rows from the front, and we could see everything. So glad we did this! Your next chance will be in 2030.

MORE BLOG POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

  • Prague’s Jan Hus: The Reformation Before Luther. Towards the end of our trip in Europe, we spent a few days in Prague, the home city for Jan Hus, the most prominent forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Defenestration of Prague & the Thirty Years War. The Thirty Years War of the first half of the 17th century devastated Europe. The amount of destruction to impact Europe would only be rivaled by the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, and the two World Wars of the 20th century. Sadly, what started it all was the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism…. and it all began in Prague, Czech Republic.

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