As hopes and resolutions for the New Year remain fresh and strong, the tradition of pilgrimage has much to teach us. As we venture to fulfil the promise that the New Year brings, our 2023 journey is laden with baggage from the global Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The concept and practice of pilgrimage can give us vision, build resilience, and provide us with the courage needed to sustain the hope and fulfil the promise of a better year.
As the world went into lockdown during the pandemic, the undertaking of a pilgrimage, like any trip for that matter, was consigned to the ‘to do list’. This was particularly poignant for travellers from across the globe intending to make their expedition to the village of Oberammergau in Bavaria, Southern Germany. It was there that the 2020 decennial Oberammergau Passion Play had been due to take place.
The Passion Play was first enacted in 1634 as a commitment of faith by the local community in response to prayer in 1633 for the ending of the black death. The villages saw their prayers answered and so committed to perform Christ’s Passion every ten years, commencing in 1634. The forty-second Passional Play was finally performed in Spring and Summer of 2022, having been postponed from 2020. During its four-hundred and eighty-year run only two seasons have been missed and two have been delayed. The play was banned in 1810 by the King of Bavaria, Maximillian I and his minister Maximillian Karl Joseph Franz de Paula Hieronymous de Garnerin de la Thuile, Count von Montgelas, as they enforced secularisation and brought the church under the control of the state. The 1940 season was cancelled due to World War II. The play was delayed once in1920 due to the aftermath of World War I and the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic and again in 2020. It was with renewed understanding of the origins of the villagers’ commitment to the Passion Play, that the pilgrims made their way to Oberammergau in 2022.
The 2022 pilgrims faced a far more complex pilgrimage to Oberammergau than that experienced in recent decades of the play. They underwent something of the disruption felt on other pilgrim routes in Northern Europe that had more recently seen a revival (Bowman et al (2020).
The period of preparation prior to the start of the physical travelling to Oberammergau was littered with uncertainty as to when the ultimate goal of the pilgrims’ journey was actually going to take place. Initially, Covid-19 isolation prevented any performances occurring for an unknown period. A decision of the Administrative District Office of Garmisch-Partenkirchen of March 19, 2020, prohibited the performance of the Passion Play. As isolation impacted communal religious gatherings, the decade long spiritual journey with its anticipated climax in the five-hour performance of the passion was ultimately extended by two years. Pilgrims waited patiently to enjoy the communality of a shared journey and the spiritual transformation that occurs in watching the 2000-strong cast production. The uncertainty and delay created a new space for self-reflection and contemplation, in anticipation of the spiritual and physical movement towards their goal. A depth of resilience and self-motivation was needed to keep sight of it. Many of the original groups intending to travel together were significantly reduced in number as Covid-19 took its toll. Yet new groups were formed, bringing together strangers for the first time.
Those newly formed groups that did finally make it to Oberammergau had particular reason to visit the Catholic Church in the village where a record of the daily deaths resulting from the black death 400 years earlier are kept. With images of TV headlines on daily Covid-19 pandemic death tolls in mind, this was a place for pilgrims to reflect on the many who were ultimately not able to make the journey. As philia (friendship) and storge (familial love) were joined with more abundant agape (sacrificial love), strangers joined together to re-examine their understanding of God’s grace. Also, to ponder what love for their fellow humans meant. The more comfortable pilgrimage with trusted family and long-held friends had been replaced with travel and communion with strangers.
Yet in all this there was something inexpressibly joyful about arriving in the small village in Southern Bavaria. Our own group of Scots, Bahamians, former missionaries, and those from the South of England not only delighted in each other’s company, but also enjoyed the incredible hospitality of the villagers. Our group was billeted with one of the passion play’s co-authors, Otto Huber, whose walls were littered with photos of generations appearing in the play. One has to be born in the village or to have lived there for 20 years in order to secure a role. Rather like the traditional way of receiving one’s degree results, the allocation of roles is posted on a notice board for villagers to see whether their preference has been accepted by the director.
Villagers not only perform, but also welcome pilgrims as they arrive and see to their needs. We enjoyed coffee served by Herod in his cafe the day after the play! We also listened to the actor who had played Jesus the night before, speak to us about the play and life in the village. It was a very real experience, albeit in enacted form, of resurrection and God-with-us. The hospitality and commitment of the villagers reminded me of the mission we have at the Open University of openness and inclusion. When combined with phenomenal resilience in the face of challenges to this Passion Play in particular, the virtues that hold us together at the OU were fully lived out in the small village in Bavaria.
A powerful impression and image from the 2022 passion play was to see streams of pilgrims as they headed to the purpose-built Passion Play theatre (the Passionspielhaus). First, the joy of actually seeing so many people, after two years of being restricted to small groups. Second, seeing so many people with a common purpose. The feeling of solidarity after so much isolation was overwhelming: like coming in after years in the desert to be overwhelmed with a feast of food and a vat of water. The quiet, contemplative crowd thronged gracefully to the afternoon and evening sessions, appearing from all corners of the village. One could hear many different languages being spoken, and yet there was no sense of exclusion. The Passion Play was performed in German, but each pilgrim had a multilingual parallel copy of the script. The stunning tableaus acted as a backdrop to the choral interludes, which intersected with the dialogue. They needed no translation.
The overarching virtue that became transformative of the way that the 2022 Oberammergau pilgrimage transpired was, perhaps, courage. This was so for actors, directors, supporting staff, villagers hosting or serving pilgrims, and for pilgrims many of whom were travelling for the first time after isolation. Pilgrims often understand that openness and inclusivity requires courage because one opens oneself to spiritual transformation. This time the spiritual journey was infused with special meaning as the risks of public gathering and physical openness were very much apparent. The willingness to be open and vulnerable created transformative depths of resilience in those who made the journey. It also led to a deeper understanding on the part of pilgrims of the commitment of the villagers who welcomed those who came from across the globe with a disarming kindness and love.
Pilgrimage is, of course, a way of keeping alive or re-envisioning a tradition or memory (Bowman 2020). In Oberammergau this was the memory of God’s gracious act in saving the village from the plague. For modern pilgrims this trip may similarly have been about giving thanks for the life they have moving forward into a post-pandemic world. There is, however, a deeper importance to this and other pilgrimages. This is that forces in Europe and beyond have in recent decades sought to push religion out of public life. Although sociologists of religion tell us religion is as vibrant as ever, we do know that religion is either becoming something one enjoys vicariously through the leadership of others (Grace Davie 2015). Alternatively, it is becoming interpersonal and enjoyed with one or two friends (Putnam and Campbell 2012). The importance of pilgrimage is that it draws humankind together around a tradition to enjoy the cultural heritage that informs our present and our future. The loss or destruction of such places and the journeying to them wipes out the memory that helps us understand who we are in relation to the divine and to each other. The courage of those who partook of the 2022 Oberammergau pilgrimage was about far more than an individual journey: it was about making a statement that communal religion is still very much alive.
What then of our journey into 2023? The pilgrim’s journey does not end with the return to their hometown. One pilgrimage is, rather, part of the ebb and flow of the pilgrim’s life journey to their ultimate destination. The 2022 Oberammergau Passion Play will, however, remain one of the most transformative pilgrimages that many experience in their lifetime. While it occurred at the tail end of a pandemic in a phenomenally difficult year, for many the resilience it will have engendered provides hope and inspires the courage necessary to go forward in an open and inclusive way into 2023.
Davie G. (2015), Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox, 2nd ed., (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell).
Putnam R. D. and Campbell D. E. (2012), American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2nd ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster)
Bowman, M., Johannsen, D., & Ohrvik, A. (2020). Reframing Pilgrimage in Northern Europe: Introduction to the Special Issue, Numen, 67(5-6), 439-452. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685276-12341597.