Germany: Power and passion lift the spirits

By Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins, retired Bishop of Waiapu, is overawed by a once-in-a-lifetime experience at Oberammergau.

More than 2000 residents take part in the play every 10 years. Photo / APN
More than 2000 residents take part in the play every 10 years. Photo / APN

Attending the Oberammergau Passion Play, which for 367 years has been performed in a small village high in the Bavarian Alps, was certainly a wonderful experience. But you could hardly call it enjoyable.

The production and the staging left us overawed. It was up to the top standard of the Munich Opera House where the producer and the musical director for the passion play usually work. The big choir, full orchestra, live animals, more than 400 actors and the involvement of more than 2000 villagers gave the production a grand scale.

To sit among the audience of about 4700 people for a religious play also left me excited. It was extraordinary to think that between mid-May to early October more than 400,000 people will have witnessed a superb dramatic presentation in German of the Passion of Christ.

Wonderful, yes, but enjoyable? I hardly think it right to call a play about suffering enjoyable. The story about the words and deeds, the agony and the sacrifice of Christ, and the brutal reaction of the authorities to Jesus' claim to know how the world should run, is not meant to be enjoyed.

Rather it left me pondering about its meaning for our lives.

However, there are joyful moments. My highlight was the scene of the Last Supper. This was set in a tent-like structure erected on the stage. The symbolism was very appropriate because the tent has always been a symbol of finding God on a journey.

In the tent the tall figure of Jesus knelt to wash his disciples' feet with tenderness and care - the servant king - then called them to the table, promising to be there for them wherever they went and whatever happened to them.

At the very end of the play the Risen Christ revealed himself to his friends at the table in their home at Emmaus ... then walked off the stage into the world and we realised that the play was over and we too would walk off into our world to find him there before us.

Between these two tables Christ's agonies were portrayed in all their horror.

We had our agonies too. The weather was wet and very cold. Though early June, the temperature was 7C for the first three-hour session from 2.30pm. We warmed up during the dinner break in a restaurant but it was only 5C for the evening session which went from 8pm to after 11pm.

The area above the stage in the auditorium is open to the sky so we had to wear all the layers of clothing we had with us to keep warm.

The cold temperature during the whipping and crucifixion of Christ made it hard to bear emotionally. Yet I knew that these scenes of "Passion" mirror the experience over the centuries of so many people on the continent of Europe even to this day. They go back to the time the play began.

The villagers of Oberammergau made a vow to God in 1643 to perform a play about the passion of Christ every 10 years if they were spared the ravages of death through the plague. Their tiny village escaped and they have kept their promise ever since.

Now in its 41st series, the play has been revised and enhanced down the centuries to reflect the current context in Europe. When Pilate came on stage he was dressed in such a way that my mind immediately thought of Hitler. When I saw Jesus hounded to death my mind flashed to scenes of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps. There was a chill about the play as well as about the weather.

Previously I had some warmer experiences of Oberammergau. In 1960 on a sunny day I toured the village, a collection of shops and houses with a couple of well maintained churches, one Catholic and one Protestant. Everything fitted into a circle of about 600m and it was easy to walk around.

Many of the local men were sporting beards and there was a general bustle of activity. Our tour guide explained that the play would be performed later that year and that the villagers would all be taking their parts, hence the beards and the bustle.

I promised myself I would return one year to see the play, but of course promises and practical reality take time to work out. As part of wider German tours I had been back, but never for the play.

Whatever the year people flock to this village for its Bavarian charm, its painted house and shop walls, and for its other speciality, wood carving shops. Between the sessions of the play we went back to one of our favourite carvers, his shop wonderfully warm, as was his welcome. We picked out a plaque he had carved using the outline of Durer's painting of Praying Hands.

It will help us to pray for the world to which Christ brought unity and love through forgiveness and reconciliation as well as providing a lasting reminder of Oberammergau. To get to Oberammergau we took the train from Innsbruck in Austria, past stunning views of the valley of the River Inn and up forested foothills to the high pass into the Bavarian Alpine region, heading for Garmish-Partenkirchen, a small town to the south of Oberammergau.

As a ski resort this had some larger hotels able to provide accommodation during the hectic times when the play is being performed.

With typical German efficiency and hospitality we were given our package which included a voucher for dinner and two breakfasts at our hotel, a ticket for the transport to and from Oberammergau on the day of the play, our seat tickets including a voucher for lunch and dinner in one of the village restaurants, and a copy of the script of the play in German and an English translation.

We didn't realise until we were at the play how hard it would be to follow the English when there was so much to watch and at night it was dark.

In some ways, the play was too much for one day. So we spent the next few days in reflection and relaxation.

We took the local trains across the Bavarian Alpine region to the shores of Bodensee. After a day the sunshine sparkled on the lake with the Swiss Alps in the background. We needed the warmth and the space to make sense of what we had experienced.

If you have the chance I encourage you to go to the play. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a delightful setting. It will both challenge and comfort you. The high mountains will raise your spirits and the villages in the valleys will keep you rooted in reality. The play is on this year until early October - and of course at 10-year intervals thereafter for those with decades of life still to come.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Several airlines have flights to Europe but one option is to take Malaysia Airlines through Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam then fly KLM to Zurich. For travel in Switzerland, Germany and Austria a Eurail Pass is good value.

An alternative arrival airport would be Munich. There are regular trains from Munich in the north and Innsbruck in the south through to Oberammergau and Garmish-Partenkirchen. See sbb.ch for train times.

Where to stay: Accommodation packages for the play can be arranged through Keith Prowse of London or check online.

Peter and Rosemary Atkins made their own arrangements to see the Oberammergau Passion Play.

- NZ Herald

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