In September 2022, I traveled to Oberammergau, Germany, to attend the village’s world-famous, once-a-decade Passion play. I’m working on a book about how local communities reinterpret the Stations of the Cross to claim divine solidarity in the face of injustice, a project that has led me to Passion rituals of many kinds. Last Good Friday, students invited me to join an ecumenical Atlanta congregation composed predominantly of people living on the street as they carried a cross down a gentrified stretch of busy Ponce de Leon Avenue to lament the racialized displacement wrought by recent urban redevelopment. The next day, a community in Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood memorialized Jesus’ Crucifixion beside the burned-out Wendy’s parking lot where police officers killed Rayshard Brooks in 2020. I’ve become captivated by the question of what it is about the Stations of the Cross—this quintessentially traditional, medieval devotion and its fourteen-station template—that makes it such a rich site of theological agency for communities on the margins.
Aside from its source material, the Oberammergau Passion play has little in common with these urban Ways of the Cross. Its origin story begins in 1633, when village leaders assembled under a wooden crucifix in the parish courtyard and begged God to save the plague-ravaged community from further death. In return, they promised to perform Christ’s Passion every ten years. Plague deaths miraculously subsided, and the following year, villagers made good on their vow. With a few notable interruptions, villagers have staged the Passion about once a decade for nearly four centuries. The play was slated to debut for the forty-second time in 2020, until—ironically—the pandemic forced a two-year delay.
Under three-time director Christian Stückl, Christ’s Passion in Oberammergau becomes a wrenching, intimate, sometimes chaotic psychological theo-drama. Performed in German on an open-air stage, the play is nearly six hours long, in addition to a three-hour break in the middle for dinner. Scenes are punctuated by “living images”—color-saturated, summarily haunting tableaux from Hebrew Scripture that, in Stückl’s vision, strive for longue durée rather than biblical typology—and carried by a full orchestra and chorus performing a score adapted from one composed some two centuries ago.
But what has made the Oberammergau Passionsspiele a source of global fascination has arguably less to do with its content and more with the traditions associated with its production. To participate, a person must have been born and raised in Oberammergau or have resided there for at least twenty years. (Anyone under the age of eighteen can perform, no matter how long they’ve lived in town.) Everyone from the village has the right to participate; the 2022 production featured a cast, chorus, and crew of nearly two thousand people, around 40 percent of the village’s total population. Preparations begin years in advance. To achieve that rugged first-century look, villager-actors refrain from cutting their hair or trimming their beards beginning on Ash Wednesday the year before the play. The lives of the Bavarian village and its people revolve around the play in ways that feel beguilingly incongruent with Western Europe’s otherwise late-modern secular milieu. It’s impossible to listen to a cool and self-described religiously ambivalent German twentysomething talk about eagerly putting his life on hold for a year—leaving university, quitting his job, moving back home with his parents, all for the chance to join his neighbors on stage in a play about Jesus’ Crucifixion—and not come away wondering what exactly is going on here.