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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.