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Since the beginning of time, humanity has turned to the god of mercy, compassion, and empathy for solace and help in times of need — believing firmly he would respond.
In 1633, the inhabitants of a small Bavarian village named Oberammergau were desperate. The plague raged in Germany and with death all around them, villagers prayed that God would spare them and their children. If he did so, to show their devotion and gratitude, they would perform a passion play covering the last days and hours of their Savior’s life every 10 years forever.
The longed-for miracle came. The deaths ceased. So in 1634, the villagers performed their first passion play to begin the continuing fulfillment of their vow which their descendants have perpetuated for almost 400 years. In 1680, the timing of the play was changed so it would be performed on years ending in zero.
S. Michael Wilcox, PhD., says he first experienced the Passion Play in 2000; then again in 2010. “I left Oberammergau both in the year 2000 and 2010 desiring and determined to try to live up to the Savior I love and into whose life I had so intimately been drawn,” Wilcox says. Because the passion play is so moving and has so profoundly affected him spiritually, Wilcox plans to return again in 2020 as leader of a tour group.
“I was not sure what to expect but was soon won over by the simple faith and goodness of the people and their magnificent scenery.” Wilcox, formerly an instructor at the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah, says, “They had not been saved by the devastation of plague, but their commitment to the Lord who had saved their ancestors still burned bright and strong.”
Set against the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, the play is staged outdoors. About 5,000 attend each performance and all shows are sellouts.
Only those who were born or have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years are allowed to participate in the performance, explains writer Paul Wade in an article in The Telegraph. Half the village’s population, about 2,500, is involved in acting and playing in the orchestra, set-building and sewing costumes.
“I know the story of our Savior's last hours well, but to witness the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prayer in Gethsemane, the betraying kiss of Judas, the trial before Caiaphas, then Pilate, the crucifixion, the resurrection from just a few feet away was almost overwhelming,” Wilcox says.
“In the 21st century, the villagers' commitment is admirable, giving up time, work, holidays and money,” writes Wade. “Once the season starts, there are five performances each week until October. And, although the major speaking roles have two actors for each part, everyone else has to turn up like clockwork. With half the village involved, the other half still has to run the town.”
Wilcox says he was so moved he could not stop weeping after the scene depicting Jesus being removed from the cross into the arms of his mother Mary. “I had experienced some of the most intense hours of sharing with my Savior; and the memory still lingers of those deep emotions, brought so close to the surface, that the life and sacrifice of Jesus ever has the power to instill,” Wilcox says.
Those who wish to witness the Oberammergau Passion Play in person in 2020 are encouraged to contact a local tour company experienced with handling arrangements for the program. Spaces sell out quickly and every decade there are far more people who hope to attend than there are available slots.