The Thirty Year’s War fought between German Protestant states and the Holy Roman Emperor from 1618-1648 forever altered the balance of power in Europe, but the more immediate impact to the small villages and citizens throughout the countryside was the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. Especially hard hit was the Bavarian village of Oberammergau where one in four residents died from the “black death.”
Legend has it that the surviving citizens met within the parish church to petition God to spare them if they promised to perform the Passion Play, enacting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, every 10th year in perpetuity. After the pledge it is said that no one else in the village died.
The first performance of the play occurred in 1634 and the villagers have steadfastly maintained their promise ever since. And while Passion Plays are performed regularly throughout the world, Oberammergau is the only place where the play is the result of a sacred vow.
There have been a few disruptions in these performances, notably during both WWI and WWII when war related casualties resulted in insufficient male participants. However, missed dates have resulted in postponements, not cancellations. This year’s performance would have been the 42nd time the play has been staged, but the pandemic that is currently ravaging Germany and the world has led to a two year postponement. There are currently no COVID-19 cases in Oberammergau, but on Palm Sunday there were 91,000 infections with over 1,300 deaths throughout the country, and local infection was believed to be just a matter of time.
Oberammergau is adjusting to a new reality. Like churches throughout the world, all religious services have been cancelled. These closures are particularly difficult for the faithful who would normally be celebrating the entirety of Holy Week culminating with Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 12th.
In times like these people desperately seek hope and redemption, and empty churches on the holiest day of the Christian calendar are worrisome. But faith is not defined by empty pews resulting from the need for social distancing. It is a belief in the divinity of Christ Jesus and his resurrection. However dire the circumstances, God is with us wherever we are. Celebrate Easter in your heart, and just as the villagers in Oberammergau will one day resume their pledge to perform the Passion Play, so will churches again be a place of fellowship and worship.
Have a Blessed Easter and stay safe. “This Too Shall Pass.”