Easter Pageant Started by Pandemic in 1633 Canceled by COVID-19

Image: Oberammergau Passion Play
A scene from the 2010 Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany.

As an epidemic raged across Europe, a picturesque German village in the mountainous south of Bavaria decided to do something about it.

Having already lost 80 of their own to the plague, the villagers of Oberammergau pledged to perform the Passion of Jesus Christ—his suffering, death, and resurrection—every tenth year, so that no one else might die.

So goes the historical legend of the origins of the Oberammergau Passion Play, an almost four-century-old tradition that takes place once every 10 years.

The year of the pledge was 1633, not 2020. The Pest—German for plague—was the so-called “Black Death,” not the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, in an ironic twist, the 42nd Oberammergau season—set to run May 16 to October 4, 2020—was postponed last week due to measures taken by local government authorities in response to the new coronavirus outbreak.

Oberammergau expected to host between 500,000 and 750,000 people—many of them pilgrims—for the 2020 performances.

In a statement, organizers said, “the health of our guests and contributors is a top priority for us, so those responsible have decided to postpone the premiere of the Passion Play.” The new premiere will be May 16, 2022.

The postponement is the latest in a string of challenges facing religious festivals, pilgrimages, and events across the globe this year. It is sure to have major impacts on the village of Oberammergau, the economy that surrounds the plays, and pilgrims planning to attend.

“We are in limbo,” said Cindy Friedrich, a 59-year-old from Apache Junction, Arizona, who was going to travel to Germany with 35 people from her church. “We are waiting to see what we will do, but we know God is with us, he will not leave us nor forsake us. He’s the one in control.”

Robert Moore, a pastor who was going to make the trip from Leipzig, Germany, said that while he and his wife are not surprised or heartbroken to not experience the Passion Play this year, they do “feel the loss—economically and spiritually—for the area of Oberammergau.”

Indeed, some 2,000 of the village’s 5,400 residents either perform on stage or play a supporting role behind the scenes. The rest are part of a network of shops, restaurants, and hotels that accommodate the thousands of pilgrims and attendees that descend on the village decennially.

To say the plays are important to the village’s identity—and economy—is an understatement, said Jake Krengel, a local tour operator based in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 30 minutes south of Oberammergau.

“In Germany, traditions aren’t just something in the past, they live on today and are foundational to local, rural communities like this,” said Krengel. “The zeal they have for the production shows in Oberammergau the regard they have for this 400-year-old tradition.”

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Source: Christianity Today