A World Without Easter

Everything is different because Jesus rose again. But do we live as if we understand he is alive?

In the summer of 2022, I visited the charming Alpine town of Oberammergau, Germany. I wandered its leafy streets lined with mural-painted houses, their balconies overflowing with flower boxes.

After indulging in ice cream and shopping for the town’s famed woodcarvings, I settled in my seat for a five-and-a-half-hour performance of Jesus’ final week on earth. Since 1634, Oberammergau has put on a Passion play involving almost all its residents, first staged in thanksgiving for the end of a bubonic plague outbreak. Normally the performances take place in the first year of a new decade (2000, 2010, etc.), but the new plague of COVID-19 delayed 2020’s play by two years.

Scores of buses were depositing tourists from many foreign countries. Looking around, I saw groups from China, Japan, and Korea, in addition to many Europeans and Americans. That summer, almost half a million people would travel to secular Germany to sit through this presentation of Jesus’ passion, spoken and sung in a language that few in the crowd could understand.

What attracted them? I wondered. At one point, more than a thousand actors filled the stage, shouting in guttural German, “Kreuzige ihn!” (Crucify him!) The audience fell silent as Pilate’s soldiers tortured and mocked their prisoner.

Some in my tour group criticized the play for shortchanging the Resurrection; after all, only 3 of the libretto’s 132 pages focused on that seminal event. Yet the ratio reflects the Gospels’ accounts, which give far more attention to the ordeal of trials and crucifixion than to the triumphant conclusion. The criticism, however, raised a question: Would a tradition such as Oberammergau’s …

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