The year is 1634. The plague is raging throughout Europe. The Black Death, they call it. It causes terrible sores that fester and break open. The people are desperate and fearful. The winter is colder than usual… and long.
I am getting ahead of myself. We are so familiar with the red frame on the television screen. Breaking News implies some new fact that we do not know, new knowledge, new information. Still, in the past days I have mentioned the story of Oberammergau to several people and nobody knew about it. We have forgotten the old, old story. It does not come in the red frame. It comes from dusty history books. Only we, living in the year 2020 have Google. Yes, go ahead and “google it”. I will spell it for you – a typical long German word. You see, there are these mountains called the Ammergau Alps. The village higher up is called Oberammergau (ober = upper) and the lower village is called Unterammergau (unter = under)
Every ten years, on the year ending with a zero, there is a well-known open-air play. They call it the Passion Play. It is the story of Jesus, presented with real life actors who are all residents of the village.
So, sit back and relax. I will tell the story. Tell it to the children – loud and clear so that the following generation will know what God can do. Lest we forget.
When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel. (Judges 2:10)
Four centuries ago Europe was a collection of little villages. Travel was limited. Horse back and horse carts were the only means of travel, long before railroads and trains. People lived and died in one village, working the farmlands surrounding it, without feeling the need to visit another just a few miles away. They would have had to walk. Life was difficult. Most people worked very hard in summer to store enough provisions for the winter. The community was based on a feudal system, whereby poor peasants worked the farmlands for a rich titled landowner (a prince, or a duke or someone like that). Some landowners were humane and treated the peasants well and others were greedy and cruel. Mostly, it was not possible to make changes to the fate one has been born into. People hardly ever moved around.
During this time, over a period of about four centuries, the winters were harsh and long. There are some historians who call the period the Little Ice Age which brought colder and longer winters to Europe and North America. Farms and villages in the Swiss Alps were destroyed by encroaching glaciers during the mid-seventeenth century.
To add to the misery there was a war raging in central Europe (Thirty Years War), a religious war between the Protestants and Catholics. This war, fought mostly on the land of the Holy Roman Empire, later Germany, was one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. It caused the death of more than eight million people from violence, famine and disease. The survivors could not keep up with proper burials. Sometimes corpses littered the fields where other people had to walk or make new farmlands.
It was in these bleak circumstances that a disease began to spread.
The bubonic plague was the cause of the Black Death that swept through Asia, Europe and Africa in the fourteenth century and killed an estimated 50 million people. The word bubonic comes from the Greek meaning groin since the disease caused swollen lymph nodes. Today medical scientists know that the infection was caused by bacteria entering the skin, causing flu-like symptoms, fever, headaches and severe vomiting. The swollen lymph nodes could become so bad that they break open, spreading the septicity even quicker. The infection was very contagious. There was no medicine for it. Some people found that a peeled onion seemed to attract bacteria, but most died a slow, painful death. Penicillin was only discovered in 1928!
During this time about 60% of the European population was wiped out. Because the plague killed so many of the working population, wages rose due to the demand for labor. Some historians see this as a turning point in European economic development.
In 1633, the residents of Oberammergau in the province of Bavaria in modern day Germany, made a sacred pledge that if God spared them from the bubonic plague ravaging the region, they would produce a play thereafter for all time every 10 years depicting the life and death of Jesus. The death rate among adults had risen from one person per 1000 per year in October 1632 to twenty in the month of March 1633.
After their vow,there was not one further case of Bubonic Plague in the village and those town members that already were afflicted, recovered.
The promise was fulfilled for the first time during Pentecost in 1634. The theme of the play is the “Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Every ten years since, the villagers of Oberammergau have continued to implement their pledge with the exception of 1940 when the play was cancelled due to World War Two.
Only residents of Oberammergau are permitted to take part. The actors are ordinary people who carry on pursuing their normal everyday lives. All the main speaking parts have always been filled by actors who were born in Oberammergau or have lived there for at least twenty years.
The current worldwide “plague” caused by the Coronavirus led to the postponement of the Passion Play of Oberammergau this year. Officials have announced that the Play will be performed in two years’ time – 2022.
This is the story of Oberammergau. I do not tell the story to promote vows or sacred pledges to God. By no means! One can only do that if the Holy Spirit leads the way in a very particular manner. It is also not what God expects from us.
The story is told to remind us of the miracle-working God we serve and trust, who is able to redeem us from this plague we are facing. We and our children need to know the stories, the testimonies of miracles and a good God who is more ready to answer prayer than we are to pray.
This is what we need to do: 2 Chronicles 7:13-15 The Message
If I ever shut off the supply of rain from the skies or order the locusts to eat the crops or send a plague on my people, and my people, my God-defined people,
respond by humbling themselves, praying, seeking my presence, and turning their backs on their wicked lives,
I’ll be there ready for you: I’ll listen from heaven, forgive their sins, and restore their land to health. From now on I’m alert day and night to the prayers offered at this place.
The command to pray is not directed to the world; it is addressed to the church. We are the God-defined people. We know that faith is rewarded (Hebrews 11:6). We will execute God’s Plan for this world.
His Plan is to save and heal.