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Reform Magazine | August 14, 2022

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The drama of the cross

The drama of the cross

Michael Hopkins reports on a visit to the Oberammergau Passion Play

Members and friends from all around the United Reformed Church travelled to Germany in May 2022 to see the famous Oberammergau Passion Play. I led a group of just of over 50 people for a few days in the Austrian Tyrol, exploring a beautiful area where many friendships were made and renewed.

The Oberammergau Passion Play has been performed every year from 1634 to 1680, and then every ten years since 1680 (with a few exceptions) by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany. In the past it has been criticised as antisemitic, but a multi-decade effort has changed this beyond recognition. The revised version of the play also makes more of the resurrection than ever before.

According to legend, an outbreak of bubonic plague devastated Bavaria during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The village of Oberammergau remained plague-free until 25 September 1633, when a man named Kaspar Schisler returned home after working in the nearby village of Eschenlohe. Over the next 33 days, 81 villagers would die, half of Oberammergau’s population. On 28 October 1633, the villagers vowed that if God spared them from the plague, they would perform a play every 10 years depicting the life and death of Jesus. Nobody died of plague in Oberammergau after that vow, and the villagers kept their word to God by performing the passion play for the first time in 1634. As is often the case, the actual story differs from the legend. There was an outbreak of plague in Oberammergau, but it took place from September 1632 to March 1633, when there were a total of 84 deaths. Deaths followed an epidemic curve instead of ending suddenly. There was one death in September 1632, rising to 20 deaths in March 1633, and ending with one death in July 1633. There is also no record of a man named Kaspar Schisler…

Michael Hopkins is the Clerk of the United Reformed Church General Assembly and Minister at Farnham, Surrey

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This is an extract from an article published in the July/August 2022 edition of Reform

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