Everyday life is based on promises. Our paper currency bears the words, ‘I promise to pay the bearer the sum of …’ Contracts, whether for a top job or dry cleaning a jacket are binding agreements and we are rightly angry if they are not honoured or have ambiguous small print. Children take promises very seriously so we should not make them carelessly or lightly to them. The Old Testament is the story of God’s promise to his chosen people, symbolised in the rainbow, and how he stayed faithful to them through their times of infidelity to him.
In 1633, the Plague was sweeping across Europe. Whole towns and villages were wiped out. The last bodies lay unburied and buildings were left to decay. Little was known about how infections were carried or prevented. Belief that sickness was God’s punishment for real or imagined sin held strong.
In the village of Ammergau in the Bavarian hills, the plague had gained a strong grip. Three quarters of the population had died and extinction seemed inevitable. One evening, the village council met and, at the end of its deliberations the eighteen members walked to the church. There, before the altar of the Passion, they solemnly vowed that if there were no further deaths, the villagers would act the Passion story every ten years for perpetuity in thanksgiving for their deliverance.
There were no more deaths. Life gradually returned to normal and in 1634 the whole village gathered in the churchyard to keep that promise. The Passion story was enacted and has continued to be acted approximately every ten years since then: for two hundred years in the churchyard, then in a central open space which now has a large stage and a canopy rather like an aircraft hanger to provide shelter.
I first heard of the promise as a small child in Sunday School. I disliked the dull hall and inevitable colouring of pictures, but one Sunday my teacher, Miss Nye (aged 15 and called Elizabeth at school) told us about the promise and the play. She showed us pictures of Jesus and Peter, and explained that they were ordinary men who grew their own hair and beards rather than actors wearing make up and wigs. I was fascinated. I wanted to go there one day, but time passed and life was always too busy so it did not happen until this year when I realised that I might not be in the mood by 2020!
What did I expect? I had directed, accompanied or sung in Passion narratives ranging from school plays and Holy Week liturgies to Bach’s great settings of the Matthew and John Passions. I had seen passion plays in London theatres so I thought it would be a mixture of the two with an aspect of pilgrimage thrown in.
I was totally wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for briefly being part of a community of barely 5,000 very ordinary people that was dedicated to living out a promise. Everyone I met was involved in some way. I stayed at a B&B run by Christina. Her husband and children were in the chorus. She couldn’t be in the play because she had not been born in the village or lived there for twenty years – criteria for taking part– so she provided hospitality. I bought a couple of gifts from a woodcarver. His daughter played the violin in the orchestra, his wife worked backstage and he helped with security every Thursday. The assistant director whizzed past on his bicycle and children sang the Oberammergau Fanfare while they played in the garden next door. At the theatre the ushers welcomed us with warm smiles. We were greeted as guests rather than customers in the shops and restaurants.
What of the actual play? The cast ranged from adults acting in their fifth or sixth passion, members of the small Muslim community, and toddlers in their parents’ arms. Staging was basic – a few pillars and steps. Each scene opened with a reflection by the chorus of fifty singers, rather as in a Greek tragedy, or our own Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’. Costumes were simple and in muted beige and blue, with black, white and orange for the main characters. Donkeys, sheep, pigeons and camels wandered on and off stage, as indeed they would have done in the streets of Jerusalem.
But that was not all. Alongside the story, a set of brilliantly coloured tableaux reminded us how the Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus’ suffering and death. We were part of the chaos of the cleansing of the temple – then vividly reminded of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and so on.
Everyone had different experiences of the play. I can only describe my own. It brought home to me the sheer brutality of crucifixion. I gained insights into the characters of Pilate with his contempt for Jewish religious practices, and of Judas as a victim of priestly conniving. My most special moment, however, was when Jesus’ body was slowly taken down from the twenty-foot cross (the hush was almost tangible) and tenderly laid in his mother’s arms - then suddenly our eyes were fixed on the final tableau: bright sunlight and a vivid green snake twining around a cross as a sign of triumph. ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up … that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.’
Most places of pilgrimage attract a particular brand of Christian. Oberammergau is truly ecumenical. I worshipped with German Lutherans. The pastor gave me a hymnbook as a gift from the congregation. I chatted with South African Pentecostalists. I had supper with Baptists from Cardiff. My ‘holy picture’ was a photo that Christina, a Roman Catholic, gave me of her husband and sons in their costumes when she kissed me good-bye.
Holy places usually have a shrine with ceremonies and records of miracles as a focal point of worship. Here the shrine is a community living out a promise made to God nearly four centuries ago, in a world where faith is often met with apathy. That is a miracle in itself.
© Margaret Withers