For decades, I’ve heard (mostly) older folks rave about their visit to Passion Play in Oberammergau, nestled in the scenic Bavarian Alps of Germany. I am now one of them!
The Passion Play began almost 400 years ago when the elders of the village of Oberammergau made a vow to God in 1633 that they would honor him by having a passion play every ten years if he would spared from the plague. He did, and they kept their vow.
Unfortunately, the 2020 performances have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The irony did not escape me and the disappointment was great. However, God graciously allowed me to postpone my plans and I finally succeeded – on July 24, 2022 – in what must be the most elaborate and famous Passion Play in the world.
Was it worth the wait? YES! No doubt about it.
The Passion Play is not strictly a word-for-word account of any of the Gospels of the week before Jesus’ death and resurrection. The current director was quoted as saying that the script evolved because people come to the play with less prior knowledge of the story than was assumed in previous years.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that the play begins in the Garden of Eden with a description of The Fall and the hope that springs from the future cross towards banished humanity.
Throughout the play, the audience is treated to beautiful vignettes of Old Testament stories that help them understand the context of Passion Week. The golden calf, the crossing of the Red Sea, Daniel in the lion’s den, Moses before Pharaoh, the sacrifice of Isaac and more point us to the Messiah, the one who would redeem the world and atone for the sin of mankind .
As Jesus walks the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion, the choir sings:
Adore him and give thanks!
He who drank the cup of suffering,
Walk the path of thorn-crowned sorrows,
Until he reconciles the world to God!
The build quality is second to none. How they managed to nail Jesus to a cross and bring him back down before my eyes remains a mystery. From the triumphal entry to the angry hordes demanding the blood of Jesus as Pilate tries to walk a fine line between upholding Roman law and adhering to Caiaphas’ demand that Jesus be executed, all scenes plunge the public at the moment. The feeling of participating in the events is palpable. The sight of dozens of children playing in the market amidst the chaos of life with real animals (big ones!) is sometimes overwhelming but also wonderful.
Such is the power and beauty of this complete performance of The Passion that the five and a half hour performance flies by. It’s a top-notch audiovisual feast. Luckily, there’s a long dinner break and a chance to catch your breath before the second act.
Although the play is performed entirely in German, participants receive a textbook of the play in a language they can understand. It’s remarkably easy to follow if you know the story, but I also found it helpful to study the Gospel of Matthew beforehand.
Behind the scenes, the story of Passion Play is quite remarkable. Male residents of Oberammergau start growing their beards a year or more after opening night. Many performers have taken on various roles throughout their lives as they age.
In total, around 1,800 residents of Oberammergau take part in the play. They are signed up to play their role at the prescribed times and go to their day jobs the rest of the time. Of course, the lead roles are played by full-time actors who live and breathe their characters. Pilate was as I imagined him. The same can be said for Caiaphas, Herod and Peter. Be careful, these are not professional actors; they are inhabitants who were born in Oberammergau or who have lived there for about twenty years.
Local Christians use the Passion Play as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Jesus. I was happy to have the opportunity to see firsthand how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Oberammergau and the Gideons do it.
The Lutheran Church is located a stone’s throw from the theater and has recently added an extension to the building where tea, coffee and water are offered to guests while conversation about the Passion Play is encouraged. The church even employs “tourism pastors” to engage with people who come. I attended church there on the morning of the passion play and it was a wonderful experience to be welcomed by my brothers and sisters from across the globe.
The strength with which he played the role can only come from someone who worked very hard to understand the story and the man.
The local Gideons are on hand to give anyone who wants a free copy of the New Testament so they can read the story for themselves. When people approach the theater, faithful servants distribute the scriptures in various languages.
Being in Bavaria, it’s hard not to throw in a Jesus that looks, well, Bavarian! The strength with which he played the role can only come from someone who worked very hard to understand the story and the man. The text of the play clearly states the role of Jesus as the God/man who was sent to atone for the sin of the world, but at times the play seemed to downplay the divinity of Christ.
Mary, his mother, was also somewhat underestimated. This led to a lackluster ending, despite the resurrection triumph depicted as the Light going out into the whole world. If I was directing the play, I would have ended up with the character of Jesus making a visible bodily appearance according to 1 Corinthians 15. I was hoping for it, praying for it, and preparing to be totally overwhelmed again at the sight of the resurrected. Lord. I was disappointed.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. On the contrary, I recommend it as a means of entering into the experience of history and of supplementing your knowledge of the Gospels, if not of the entire canon of Scripture.
The final song includes these lyrics:
Risen is the Lord!
Shout praises to him, heavens!
Sing to the conqueror, O earth!
Hallelujah, to you Risen One!
I can live with this – for eternity.
You can find out more about Passion Play here. Phillip Zamagias is a former missionary pilot in Arnhem Land and now senior minister at Christ Church Anglican, Echuca, in Victioria.