1. Living the story
Today we think of passion as an uncontrollable, often positive emotion, but the word itself comes from the Latin term for ‘suffering’. So the passion of Jesus is the final period of his life, culminating with his crucifixion. Early Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem would walk what they believed was his final journey carrying the cross, and would stop for prayer along the route to reflect on his suffering.
Those who could not afford to travel to Jerusalem and walk the route themselves would also encounter the Passion story: in Bible readings, prayers and in church. In the 12th Century, plays of Christ’s Passion started to become popular, at first consisting of readings from the Gospels illustrated with poetry and music.
Believers felt that through their participation in the Passion events they too could become part of the story. Over the next couple of centuries, Latin was replaced by local languages and Passion plays were shaped to suit the different audiences – and their different takes on the story.
2. Cruel and gruesome
Blood, beatings and a dramatic execution: the portrayal of Jesus's suffering in Passion plays is in stark contrast to the original Gospel accounts.
For the authors of the Gospels, torture and crucifixion were features of their world and did not need to be described in detail. As time passed, this changed.
Later Christians saw the love of God in the sacrifice of Jesus for their sins, so the greatest love was shown in the greatest suffering. Making the action realistic also demonstrated the Christian belief that the death of Jesus was a historical event.
The audience could relate to human experience such as pain, injustice, and ultimately death, while the message of forgiveness brought hope to those who were struggling in life.
Universal themes made these plays real crowd-pleasers.
In the first half of the 17th Century, the Thirty Years’ War and the bubonic plague were claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.
Hoping for a miracle, the people of Bavarian town Oberammergau vowed that if they were spared they would perform the "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" every 10 years.
In 1634, the play was performed for the first time on a stage above the graves of the plague victims.
To this day, it is still a world-famous event and an entirely local production. Almost half of the town’s inhabitants act in the play and sing in the chorus.
This extraordinary community enterprise illustrates two features of the modern era of Passion plays: firstly, while the historical location of the drama was Palestine, plays used the architecture and history of a local place to tell the story. Secondly, this was a play by the people for the people.
With strong emotions, a gripping plot and mass participation, it was only a matter of time until a new generation rediscovered the Passion.
6. Passion and media: A match made in heaven?
Passion plays are not banned anymore, but they can still be surrounded by controversy. Why were these modern interpretations of Jesus’s story contentious?