National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Passion for divine drama

April 2019

The famous Passion Play of Oberammergau in southern Germany is Catholic by tradition, but many Australian Lutherans have attended it over the years. Some local Lutherans, including a pastor, are even part of the once-in-a-decade sacred theatrical spectacular. So what can a Lutheran minister, in a Catholic stronghold in Germany, show us about inter-church relationships in the 21st century? Australian Lutheran author and Oberammergau aficionado Valerie Volk finds out.

by Valerie Volk

I’m sitting in the study of Pastor Peter Sachi, the minister at the tiny Lutheran church in the very Catholic town of Oberammergau in southern Bavaria.

He’s a big man, bluff and friendly. He’s also a very happy man, because he has been part of a triumph of ecumenical goodwill, along with ministers from the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Lutheran churches, as preparations begin 18 months out from the 2020 Passion Play season.

Pastor Peter’s church is one some Australian Lutherans would recognise, for our LCA/NZ people attending Oberammergau typically go to a pre-play service here. It is part of the preparation for experiencing the full-day performance in the Passionstheater, the famous theatre featured on every postcard.

The renowned event, held only every 10th year, draws 500,000 people from all over the world to a six-month season of performances. Next time will be the 42nd Passion Play since 1634. It’s a magnificent and deeply moving re-living of the events from Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, to Resurrection Sunday, with its triumphant promise of salvation – watched by more than 4000 people in a huge domed theatre.

The numbers are paralleled by the 2300 people of Oberammergau who perform this recounting of Christ’s last days five times each week. But to be in this play, or its professional-quality choir and orchestra, you must either have been born in Oberammergau or have lived here for 20 years.

This is the way it has been for almost four centuries, for when villagers gathered in 1633 and prayed to God to protect them from the plague that raged throughout Europe, they made the original vow. A vow that is repeated before each play season.

I watched the vow being made in October 2018, when more than 2000 people – half the population – gathered in the theatre for a church service focusing on re-dedicating themselves for the 2020 play season. They stood to hear nine-year-old Sophie Maderspacher speak on their behalf the original words, which translate as: ‘Remembering our ancestors’ vow and true to their promise, we Oberammergauers solemnly undertake to re-enact the Passion Play in the year 2020.’ It was a significant moment, but after the service the congregation moved to the large square outside the theatre for the long-anticipated announcement of the cast list for 2020.

After 1800 auditions conducted over many months, the names of all the main roles, beginning with Jesus, were written one by one, on two big blackboards. No words spoken, just a tense crowd waiting and a buzz of excitement building as each name appeared.

For Pastor Peter it was also a very special day, as he was one of the officiating ministers in front of the stage altar for the morning service, before standing in the crowd, also waiting.

‘I have a special privilege’, he says, beaming. ‘As an Oberammergau minister, although I am Lutheran and have only been here for nine years, I have been permitted to take part in the play. In 2010 I was in the crowd scene for the Jerusalem entry.

‘But for 2020 I have been selected for the choir, the chorus group of 50 people who sing the story of what is happening between each of the scenes.’

He is clearly radiant about this. It was a tough audition: singing before a panel sitting behind a curtain. To be part of this chosen group is special. ‘I am privileged’,
he says again, simply. ‘It is an honour.’

‘How does the Lutheran church here connect with the play?’, I ask. ‘Very closely’, he says. ‘Many will take part, and we offer our visitors a service in the church before each performance. Our church will be open throughout and we provide tea and coffee to welcome people. Some will come with questions about the play, or about things that trouble them. As a cast member, I have the chance to talk about my faith with others who are in it. It is for us a real opportunity.’

After the 2010 Passion Play, Valerie Volk wrote the novel Passion Play, about travellers who go to Oberammergau to attend the performance. The book is available in Australia from selected bookshops, from publisher Wakefield Press, or from the author at www.valerievolk.com.au