Written by The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce, Rector of St Bride’s
It was two years late, as a result of COVID-19, but this summer the St Bride’s pilgrimage to the world-famous Passion Play in the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau finally took place. It was worth the wait!
Following a devastating outbreak of plague in 1632, the people of Oberammergau came together and vowed to perform a play depicting the ‘suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ’ every ten years. The first performance took place in 1634, and the tradition has continued for almost four centuries, now drawing audiences from across the world.
The scale, quality, and power of the production, which includes a full choir and orchestra, were astounding – and the more remarkable because all the performers, musicians, and singers are required to be natives of the town. The play features a cast of thousands and an abundance of live animals (including camels, which for the past 120 years have been bred by a local farming family for the purpose!).
The male actors grow their hair and beards in preparation for the play, and it is amusing to spot so many hirsute (and decidedly unkempt) individuals going about their regular work between performances. Some members of our group stayed in a hotel that was owned by Pontius Pilate (who, as the Roman Governor, was just about the only actor who was allowed to remain short-haired and clean-shaven!).
Prior to the performance we were given an introductory talk by the performer who plays Nicodemus. Remarkably, Abdullah is the first Muslim to have taken part in the play. His family have lived in Oberammergau for three generations and he is hotly tipped to be a future Jesus.
The Passion Play lasts for five hours on stage, with a three-hour interval, and it was riveting. The auditorium is partially open to the sky, and on the night that we attended a thunderstorm broke out during the trial and crucifixion scenes, illuminating the stage with sheet lightning – which redefined the concept of ‘special effects’! The ending was stunning; indeed, it was a truly remarkable experience on every level.
The main reason for our pilgrimage was to experience the Passion Play, but this was in fact the finale of a week-long trip. We spent the preceding five days in Austria, based at the delightful village of Maria Alm in the Alps. From there we were able to walk part of the ‘Jakobsweg’ (the Austrian section of the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela), visit local churches and take in the breathtaking scenery.
As luck would have it, we experienced the ancient solstice tradition of the ‘Sonnwendfeuer’ – when hundreds of bonfires are lit on the tops of the surrounding mountains.
We also had a day in Salzburg (inspiring full-throated renditions of a Certain Famous Musical on the coach back).
It was enormous fun, but also a time of spiritual refreshment and profound reflection. I suspect it may inspire a sermon or two in the coming months …
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