The celebration of Easter has certainly changed in many ways during my eight decades, but its meaning and impact remain constant. The story of the resurrection cannot be altered. We might lose sight of it, we might even choose to ignore it.
We might, in our feeble humanity, allow Easter bonnets and colored eggs, baby chicks and bunny rabbits to take precedence over the more serious activities. But within our heart of hearts, the Christ of the Manger and of the Cross has risen. We are forgiven, and the newness of springtime serves as evidence of God’s goodness.
The cross has been the primary symbol of Easter throughout the centuries, and will remain so. Without the cross, there would be no resurrection. But our praises and pageants and songs are centered on the empty tomb, a symbol that would be difficult to wear on a chain or decorate with an Easter lily.
I have many good Easter memories, but Easter of 1984 occurred for me on July 16. I was in Oberammergau, Germany, with a tour group, there to experience a special presentation of the village’s passion play.
This small village has a wonderful story, known today worldwide for this once-every-decade event. The story begins in 1633 when the Black Death, the plague that had swept over Europe for 12 generations, touched every nook and cranny, and left countless families in hopeless situations.
The citizens of Oberammergau had taken every precaution they knew to ward off the deadly sickness. They burned “pest fires” day and night. All strangers were forbidden entry into the village. Watchmen were on guard.
When, in the late summer of 1633, the deaths and pestilence still did not cease, church officials met and discussed for a long time what further measures they should take. Their unanimous decision was that from then on, every 10 years the devout representation of the sufferings and death of Christ should be given, so that God would have mercy and free their village from the appalling sickness.
Passion plays were common at the time, but this one would prove to be different. The vow was made, and from the very hour of the making of the vow, nobody else in the village died of the pestilence that was rampant.
The next year, 1634, marked the beginning of the productions, the first fulfillment of the vow. There have been few deviations from the 10-year plan.
In 1674, there were so many spectators that they could apparently not find places in the over-crowded church. Plans were made to construct a facility for outdoor performances, and this was scheduled for 1680. Subsequently, the play was held in years ending in zero after that year. In 1934, an extra season was held to commemorate the 300-year anniversary, and in 1984, this was repeated.
That was more than 30 years ago, and each year during Holy Week, I return to my diary and photos and guide and re-live those hours spent in the midst of Bethany and Gethsemane and Golgotha.
I wrote in my diary: “The 48-voice choir and 65-piece orchestra blended remarkably well. Each segment of the play was introduced by a monologue and music and a tableau representing an Old Testament or Apocrypha event which corresponded with an event in Passion Week. After the tableau, the action would take place. This was a new concept for me, this idea of history repeating itself through these characters. One tableau (from The Apocrypha) was of Tobias’ farewell to his mother. This was followed by Jesus’ conversation with his mother Mary… This was probably the most touching scene in the Play… The image is indelibly stamped on my mind, along with Michelangelo’s Pieta which we had seen days earlier at St. Peter’s.”
Another example was the scene of Judas, despairing of his actions, following a tableau of Cain, suffering in desperation after murdering his brother.
The population of this little town hovers around 5,000. The townspeople are the actors and actresses, the stage hands, the clean-up crews. The vow is evident, not only in the play itself, but in the very atmosphere. In 2010, the play was held 102 times. Records also show that in 1930, there were 80 performances, an astounding feat considering the play’s origins and the fact that the people of the town are so devoted.
The dialogue is in German, but printed texts in English were available. The words and the actions are all too familiar to Christians, and I found it rather easy to understand.
Especially the ending. “Hallelujah, Christ is risen!”
Juanita Hughes is retired head of the Woodstock Library.