A PILGRIMAGE TO THE OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY AND AUSTRIA, JULY 2010 In the summer of 2008, Meg and I were delighted to find that there were spaces available for this pilgrimage with our Bishop, Peter Price.  It was an opportunity for Meg to invite her friend, Juliet, to share with her, and Sue Cannock, of Christ Church, to share with me.

We went up to Wells in May this year to meet together with the Bishop and most of the other 46 who would be making up the group, mostly from the Diocese, and found that Liz Green, who goes to St. Paul’s Church, was also going.

The pilgrimage was being organised by a company called McCabe, whose reps were at this afternoon tea to talk to us and answer any queries.  It seemed a long time since we had booked!

However, the day finally arrived for our week away, Tuesday 20th July.  The four of us from Weston travelled up to Heathrow by coach, where we met the Bishop and The Rev. Julia Hedley, his domestic chaplain, and Meg met up with Juliet. We flew to Munich from where we had a super coach to Arzl in Austria, where we were to stay for 3 nights before returning to Germany for the Passion Play in Oberammergau. Our hotel in Arzl, the Arzlerhof, is a delightful family run establishment in the upper part of the small town, with about 100 rooms, swimming pool etc.  Our rooms were on the front with balconies looking out to the delightful chalet houses and mountains beyond.  The food was superb, served by delightful staff wearing attractive traditional dress.
We had such lovely weather in those 2 days, and although outings were arranged for those who wished to partake in them, Meg and I had thought that we would like to go up some of the beautiful mountains which we did.  The hotel gave us free bus passes and we used the buses to take us to 2 different ski resorts where we could ride up in cable cars and chair lifts to higher levels.  It was magnificent. Each day at 6.30pm, the group was led in a short act of worship by the Bishop in an outside covered area.  We were invited to share our experiences of the day with all those present, and the Bishop read a story, with a message, from a book that he had purchased for the purpose just before the pilgrimage – “The Power of Pause” by Terry Hershey. On the third day, we travelled back to Oberammergau where we were to stay for one night in a hotel in the village.  Here we had heavy rain much of the time, but we had come to see the Passion Play, so the weather was not important. This Passion Play originated at the time of the 30 Year War.  With the war came the plague.  In 1632, The Black Death was in all the villages of the Ammer Valley, including Oberammergau, although the people of the village had tried to protect themselves against the disease.  The people of Oberammergau asked for God’s help, vowing in 1633 to stage the ‘Play of the Suffering and Death of Our Lord,’ every 10 years.  It was said that from then on the plague caused no more deaths and the Passion Play was staged for the first time in 1634. The original text of the Play came from more than one source and has been altered several times, but the staging of the Play has changed very little since the 1920’s. Up to the 19th Century, the Plays were performed in the cemetery in front of the parish church.  The present stage and hall, offering room for 4000+ spectators, was built in 1900, redesigned and enlarged in 1930, and the stage now measuring 45 metres wide, is one of the largest open air stages in the world. It now has a retractable roof.  The massive scenes sometimes have up to 800 actors on the stage at the same time but only citizens of Oberammergau have the right to take part.  The Play is in two parts, now afternoon and evening and covers the period from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem until just after His crucifixion.  It is performed in German, but we had a copy of the text in English if we wished to follow the words, which I did. There are many different reasons for the huge numbers of people who come, but one is probably the unique nature of this Play.  It is a mystery play that shows the Passion of Jesus both as a drama and as a chance for meditation.
Between some of the scenes are ‘Living Images’ – tableaux – actors in motionless scenes showing Old Testament events, relating to the text and as a focus for meditation with stirring music, solo and choral singing. The Passion Play is a very moving experience which is different for everyone. On the Sunday morning following our return to Arzl, we had a service of Communion in the lovely outside shelter, but instead of a sermon, the Bishop asked for those who wished to share some of their experiences regarding the Play.  These included:-

It was so special to see what Jesus went through and his friends, but to know that He loves us, and we need to keep our hearts open to His love.  Peter realised that he would be forgiven, but Judas did not.

How Jesus put the precious person of Mary into John’s care.

The love of the people bringing Jesus down from the cross, so different from how the two thieves were brought down.  Love brought into the horror.

It was a thanksgiving for the village people’s deliverance.  The people had given their all in the performance, which ended with lights being passed from one to another, a sign of hope and what we should be doing, - our mission to take the light of Christ and carry it forward, and then a single light in the middle of the darkness of the stage.

The words of the prologue were speaking to us all the way through the story.

‘See how he takes all the burdens of Eve’s children upon his shoulders, how – struggling, suffering, dying – he opens wide the doors for us to our Father.’ The remainder of our time in Austria was spent enjoying the beautiful mountains, each other’s company and conversation, and all the many blessings that we had received during that very special pilgrimage.