March 16, 2016 10:06 pm Published by


As I write this, rehearsals for the Passion Play in Bedford are in full progress. Speaking parts have been allocated, costumes are being made and the sets for the four different locations have almost been completed. There have been many Passion Plays on stage in Bedford but this is the first one which will be held in the open air for nearly thirty years. It has been a huge undertaking for the organisers and it has been an exciting challenge for the director. The script has been written to tell the story of the last week of the life of Jesus in a very effective way. The performance is not being regarded by those taking part  as a ‘play’ or ‘performance’ but as a ‘reenactment’ of the events leading up to the crucifixion and the resurrection.  All the actors I have spoken to have found the rehearsals extremely moving. The Passion Play will end with the resurrection of Jesus with church bells being rung and doves being released. Probably by the time you read this, the Passion Play will have taken place and the impact on those seeing it will have been immense.

The concept of the Passion Play originated in Germany during medieval times. The first Passion Plays had a simple format of  different people chanting the Good Friday gospel. The Benedictine Passion Play performed in the 13th century was composed simply of Latin ritual sentences and of church hymns. By the 15th century, Passion Plays had been developed more for audiences and were in the vernacular. The plays were often far more than just the events of Holy Week. For example, the Vienna Passion Play developed the concept of Redemption starting with the fall of Lucifer and ending with Jesus eating with His disciples at the Last Supper.  By the 15th century, the production of the passion play was given financial support from wealthy citizens and it was a matter of pride to produce a play of immense proportions. There were usually as many as two hundred in the cast from all parts of society. The staging was simple but it was usually located in front of a nobleman’s house; the balconies represented ‘heaven’ and three crosses were set up under the balcony.  The actors were led onto the stage in solemn procession by musicians or a herald (praecursor) and the costumes were contemporary.

Passion plays were extremely popular until the end of the 15th century when the wealthy withdrew their financial support. The ordinary people wanted more secular plays and so they were banned

by the church. There was a resurgence of public interest towards the end of the 19th century, especially in Bavaria and the Tyrol. Now passion plays are performed all over the world including Australia (in Brisbane, New South Wales and Queensland), Brazil, Canada (in Toronto), Malta, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand and in many cities in the United States.  The importance of the play can be seen in places like Pernambuco in north Brazil where  a ‘theatre city’ called the New Jerusalem was purpose built for their passion play. It is the largest open-air theatre in the world and can accommodate thousands of visitors who arrive each year to watch the performance. Over five hundred actors are involved and on nine separate stages.

The place best known for its passion play is of course Oberammergau, a small town in a beautiful part of Bavaria. The village is known for woodcarving and for the lovely paintings with Bavarian themes on the houses.  The Passion Play has been held every ten years since 1634. The year before, the Black Plague swept through Europe and the people of Oberammergau vowed that if their town was spared, they would perform the Passion of Christ every ten year.  They were spared the plague and have performed the play every ten years ever since.  The Passion Play starts with Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and goes through to His trial, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.   To be able to participate in the play, one must be a resident of Oberammergau and over two thousand people are involved in the acting, singing, music and technical support.  There is a very large orchestra and choir, and many people work behind the scenes. Men grow their hair and beards to represent the times and all costumes are hand made.   The play is performed five times a week from May through to early October and it is anticipated that nearly eight hundred thousand people will attend in 2020.

What I think is so important about Passion Plays is that they end with the Resurrection. Without the resurrection, the cross would lose much of its meaning. When I was a student, I used to listen to the musical  ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’; I very enjoyed the music and found the words thought provoking. However, my regret was that there was no scene with the resurrection and it was as if only half the story had been told.

I see Easter as a new dawn and therefore I sometimes think of the resurrection when I see a dramatic sunrise. Perhaps my most memorable experience of a sunrise was when I was in the foothills of the Himalayas. We had sheltered overnight and two hours before light, we climbed a thousand feet until we got to a vantage point. We gazed across the valley but it was still in darkness.  But imperceptibly the sky above us turned a shade of orange and yellow as the sun rose in the distance.  Then ten minutes later, coming into view through the mist was Mt Annapurna 25000ft high, towering in the sky with more snow than I had ever seen before on a mountain. I watched with bated breath as the scene unfurled. My mind turned to the resurrection of Jesus and I found it much easier to understand that out of the darkness of Good Friday, when Jesus died on the Cross,  comes the light of Easter Day when Jesus rose from the dead. Out of sadness comes joy.

If Jesus rose from the dead, we may be assured that He is alive today and can be part of our lives through His Spirit. Jesus is always there to support us, to guide us and give us strength in our daily lives in whatever situation we find ourselves. Furthermore, we can look forward to eternal life. This gives us not only a very positive goal but an impetus, a sense of urgency to live our Christian Faith to the full and be led by the Spirit of the Risen Christ.  And we can reflect this in the joy that we have in our lives and can show Christ’s love in our relationships with other people.

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