The world's most famous Passion Play was worth the wait

For decades I have been hearing (mostly) older folk rave about their visit to the Passion Play at Oberammergau, nestled in Germany’s picturesque Bavarian alps. I am now one of them!

The Passion Play started almost 400 years ago when the Oberammergau village elders made a vow to God in 1633 that they would honour him by putting on a Passion Play every ten years if he spared them from the plague. He did, and they kept their vow.

Sadly, the 2020 performances were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The irony was not lost on me and the disappointment was great. However, God graciously allowed me to just postpone my plans and I finally made it – on July 24, 2022 – to what must be the world’s most elaborate and famous Passion Play.

Was it worth the wait? YES! No doubt about it.

Phillip Zamagias at Passionstheater Omerammergau

The Passion Play is not strictly a word-for-word account from one of the gospels of the week leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The current director has been quoted as saying that the script has evolved because people come to the play with less prior knowledge of the story than was assumed in previous years.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the play begins in the garden of Eden with a description of The Fall and the hope that springs from the future cross to banished humanity.

Throughout the play, the audience is treated to some beautiful vignettes of Old Testament stories that help it understand the context of Passion Week. The Golden Calf, the crossing of the Red Sea, Daniel in the lion’s den, Moses before Pharaoh, the sacrifice of Isaac and more all point us to the Messiah, the one who would redeem the world and atone for humanity’s sin.

As Jesus walks the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion, the choir sings:

Worship him and give thanks!
He who drank the cup of suffering,
Walks the way of sorrows crowned with thorns,
Until he reconciles the world to God!

The production quality is second to none. How they managed to nail Jesus to a cross and get him down again in front of my eyes remains a mystery. From the triumphal entry to the angry hordes baying for Jesus’ blood while Pilate tries to walk a fine line between upholding Roman law and acceding to Caiaphas’s demand that Jesus be executed, all scenes immerse the audience in the moment. The sense of participating in the events is palpable. The sight of dozens of children playing in the marketplace amid the chaos of life with real animals (big ones!) is overwhelming at times but wonderful as well.

Such is the power and beauty of this well-rounded portrayal of The Passion that the five-and-a-half hours’ of performance fly by. It is an audio/visual feast of the highest order. Helpfully, there is a long break for dinner and an opportunity to catch one’s breath before the second act.

Despite the play being performed entirely in German, participants are given a book of the text of the play in a language they can understand. It is remarkably easy to follow if you know the story, but I also found studying Matthew’s Gospel beforehand helpful.

Behind the scenes, the story of the Passion Play is quite remarkable. Male residents of Oberammergau begin growing their beards a year or more out from opening night. Many performers have played various roles over their whole lifetimes as they grew older.

All in all, around 1,800 Oberammergauans participate in the play. They are rostered on to play their part at the prescribed times and go to their day job the rest of the time. Of course, the major parts are played by full-time actors who live and breathe their characters. Pilate was as I imagined him. The same can be said for Caiaphas, Herod and Peter. These are not professional actors mind you; they are residents who were born in Oberammergau or have lived there for some 20 years or so.

Local Christians use the Passion Play as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Jesus. I was glad to have the opportunity to see first-hand how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oberammergau and the Gideons do this.

The Lutheran church is located just a stone’s throw from the theatre and has recently added an extension to the building where tea, coffee and water are offered to guests while conversation about the Passion Play is encouraged. The church even employs ‘Tourism Pastors’ to engage with the people who drop in. I attended church there on the morning of the Passion Play and it was a marvellous experience to be welcomed by my brothers and sisters on the other side of the globe.

The strength by which he played the part can only come from a person who has worked very hard to understand the story and the man.

The Local Gideons are on hand to give anyone who wants one, a copy of the New Testament for free so they can read the story for themselves. As people approach the theatre, faithful servants hand out the Scriptures in a variety of languages.

Being in Bavaria, it’s hard not to cast a Jesus who looks, well, Bavarian! The strength by which he played the part can only come from a person who has worked very hard to understand the story and the man. The text of the play clearly spells out Jesus’ role as the God/man who was sent to atone for the sin of the world, but at times, the play seemed to downplay the deity of Christ.

Mary, his mother, was also somewhat understated. This led to a lacklustre ending, despite the triumph of the resurrection being portrayed as The Light going out into all the world. If I were directing the play, I would have ended with the Jesus character making a visible, bodily appearance as per 1 Corinthians 15. I was hoping for it, praying for it and readying myself to be totally overwhelmed again at the sight of the resurrected Lord. I was disappointed.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. On the contrary, I recommend it as a way of entering into the experience of the story and filling out your knowledge of the gospels, indeed the whole canon of Scripture.

The final song includes these words:

Risen is the Lord!
Shout out praises to him, you heavens!
Sing to the victor you O earth!
Hallelujah, to you Risen One!

I can live with that – for eternity.

You can find out more about the Passion Play here.

Phillip Zamagias is a former missionary pilot in Arnhem Land and now senior minister at Christ Church Anglican, Echuca, in Victoria.