The story begins in 1633 with the village of Oberammergau in a bad way, the Thirty Years War raging around it and the death toll from the bubonic plague rapidly increasing. Those still alive made a vow that if God spared them, they would put on a performance detailing Christ's own suffering and repeat it every ten years in gratitude for their deliverance.
Miraculously from that point on they all survived and true to their promise, the first performance was in 1634. This simple performance was held in a meadow and acted by the villagers and since 1680 it has been repeated every ten years. Performances have been cancelled only twice, 1770 and 1940, because of political strife. This year marks the 375th anniversary.
Rev. Wallace Chappell called the play "a superb production" that tells the story of Jesus "classically, skillfully, and beautifully."
This year the production will be staged five times a week (102 performances) from May 15 through October 3. The theater accommodates an audience of 4700. The stage holds 900 actors during one scene, and the orchestral pit accommodates more than 100 musicians. The table used for the Last Supper dates from 1780.
Oberammergau, 40 miles south of Munich, is nestled in a pretty spot in the forested foothills of the Alps and in the shadow of Schloss Neuchwanstein--otherwise known as the castle in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Fred Mayet, head of the Oberammergau Passion Play press office and actor who plays Jesus, said that more than half of the 5300 residents are directly involved as actors, musicians, and stage technicians in putting on the play.
The entire cast consists of villagers who have lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years. They must also be amateurs and people of high moral and ethical principles. Villagers also make the outstanding costumes. No wigs or fake beards are used so participants must grow their hair and beards for several months prior to the performances, beginning on Ash Wednesday 2009 according to the "Hair Decree."
Christian Stückl is the director of the play. He first became involved as a child, when he was in the production's choir, and his father played Judas in 1970. Andrea Hecht is a wood carver and shop owner and one of two actresses playing Mary. It is the fourth time she will have taken to the stage in 40 years, starting off as a young child being carried by her parents in a crowd scene.
Rehearsals for the play last ten months. All performers pursue their usual careers as wood carvers, house wives and so forth. Local employers accept that performers, who are chosen by a local committee, will be away from work for the best part of five months.
The play's schedule is so grueling and the production itself so lengthy, there are two actors for the role of Jesus. For the long Crucifixion scene, Jesus has to be hung from harnesses on the cross while at the same time squeezing fake blood on to his body. Later, he has to lie as though dead for 20 minutes while dressed in a loincloth.
By taking on these roles, Oberammergauers are fulfilling the promise to God made by their ancestors, celebrating their faith and sharing it with the world as the residents of Oberammergau have for some 375 years.
Maybe your story is not as dramatic as the residents of Oberammergau but all of us have experienced the goodness of God. Perhaps you can identify calamities from which you have been "spared." Most of us can recognize how blessed we are. The promises and commitments we make may not be as grandiose as the Oberammergau Passion Play but they are just as important.
[Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," July 26, 2010. North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.]