"The last act still needs work." The director addressed his group of bone-weary actors. "Let's run through this scene once more before we call it a night."
Nine-year-old Gerda rolled her eyes as she picked herself up from the stage and slunk back to her place. She was portraying a girl in the crowd on Palm Sunday as Jesus rode by on a donkey. This would be the sixth run-through of the evening, and Gerda's palm branch was as wilted and worn as she was. After the rehearsal finally ended a half-hour later, she crawled into the back seat of her parents' car, still in costume. Her parents hadn't bothered to change into street clothes either.
Everyone in her family, including her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, had parts in the next Oberammergau Passion Play, portraying the life of Jesus. Her little brothers were still too young, but some day they, too, would take their places. In fact over 2,000 people from her town in southern Germany were involved in the play production.
Gerda sighed. "This is so much work. I don't see why the director has to be so picky!"
Her mother turned to look at her as her father drove into the night rain. "You know the play must be just right, in honor of the Lord, Gerda. I thought you wanted to be in the play."
"I did. I mean, I still do. I just didn't know it would be so hard." The steady swish-swish of the windshield wipers made the only sound for a few moments. "Why do we do this anyway? Grand-mother says that our town has been putting on this play since long before she was born, but why?"
Her father smiled. "Since well before even her grandmother was born. It's the duty of our town to perform the play once every ten years. In the year 2000 we had our 40th performance! Now, that's a long tradition."
"I know, it's almost 400 years, Father. But I still need to know why we bother."
"Let me tell you a story to help you understand," Gerda's mother began. The girl settled back into her seat, for her mother knew how to tell a good story.
A young boy named Hans hurried down a narrow street with an important mission. Hans was on his way to the church to pray for his mother, who was sick with the plague. But first he had to take time to deal with an unwelcome visitor. "Shoo!" Hans whispered loudly. "Shoo! Go home, Dieter!" His frisky dog nipped at the boy's heels, trying to get him to play, but Hans' heart was too heavy. It was the year 1633 and our country was in the midst of the dreadful Thirty Years' War.
We lost many young men in the battles, and now the bubonic plague was taking even more people. Hans had no intention of watching his mother slip away as well. "Go home!" Hans commanded. "I have work to do, and I mustn't be seen."
When the animal refused to leave his master, Hans grabbed a stick and threw it as hard and as far as he could. Dieter ran after it, barking and huffing while Hans escaped into the darkness of the village church, closing the door quietly behind him. Hans wasn't prepared to run into the town's elders gathering for a meeting. Fortunately, they were too absorbed in their business to notice a small boy, so Hans sneaked into a back pew and laid down as flat as he could.
"I don't know what we can do," Hans heard one of the elders say. "No one can fight the dreaded plague!"
"I say we burn it out!" suggested another man.
"We could try, but that's not very practical," Hans heard his father say.
"The quarantine helps some," Father Heinrich commented. "But we have already lost so many."
"Ja," another said. "We might as well try to move the mountains."
Silence fell. Hans let the scent of melting wax and the shadows cast from candles fill his senses. The plague was also known as "the Black Death." Although some of its victims survived, most died miserably within days of becoming ill. "Please, God," he prayed silently, "save my mother." A tear rolled down his cheek, and he brushed it away with the back of his hand.
Hans' elderly grandfather's voice broke into his prayers. "I have a totally different idea. In addition to our prayers to Almighty God, let us pay tribute to Him. He knows from the death of His dear Son what suffering is. Out of our time of sorrows, let us praise Him for dying on the cross for us."
"How?" someone asked. Hans peeked over the pew to watch.
"Let us perform a play in honor of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection."
The priest nodded and smiled. "A play to honor and praise our Lord during our time of suffering. An excellent idea!"
"And it will come directly from the hearts of all our people, rich and poor alike. It will be Oberammergau's tribute to the Holy One," said Hans' grandfather.
"And that is how the Passion Play began," explained Gerda's mother. "Instead of getting angry at God for the war and plague, our ancestors agreed to pay tribute to him. They first fulfilled their promise the following year, in 1634. Though many other towns were destroyed by the Black Death, it is said that no more people died in our village after the elders made their promise. Now our people continue the tradition to thank God for His goodness and mercy."
"At first the actors performed on a stage in the village cemetery above the graves of those they'd lost in the plague," her father continued.
"And we have kept their promise to God as a village every ten years since then without fail," Gerda's mother said. "Only citizens of Oberammergau may participate. We do our plays at the start of each decade, and people come from around the world."
Gerda was silent. Suddenly her weariness fell away from her. A great sense of purpose took its place. She smiled and yawned. "Mama, I just have one more question."
"When do we get to have our next rehearsal?" Her mother laughed, "Soon enough, dear, soon enough."
Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
- Would you enjoy performing in a Passion Play? What part would you like, if you could choose?
- Have you ever seen a Passion Play performed? How is seeing a performance of Jesus' death and resurrection different than hearing about it through a story?
- What difference does Christ's resurrection make in your life?
- How would you describe the importance of Easter to someone who doesn't believe in Christ? Might a Passion Play help to explain why Jesus came to earth and why he died on the cross?
- Think of your favorite Easter tradition like painting eggs or enjoying sweets. How does this tradition remind you of the true meaning of Easter?
- Suggested reading:
- The Story of Christ's Passion (Passionsspiele Oberammergau 2000) by Anja-Sophia Henle, (2000, Prestel Verlag).
- The Very First Easter by Paul L. Maier, (2004, Concordia Publishing House).