We know we are part of an extensive prayer network, praying for others during the times we are apart too, and how wonderfully prayer is answered. But first, Oberammergau, and the Passion Play.
We've been to Oberammergau, to the Passion Play, [held every 10 years since 1663, when the village took a solemn promised to perform it if they were spared from an appalling plague, at the time of the Swedish Invasion] - and we have been so deeply moved and affected by all that we saw and heard - it is awesome. What struck us the most? although we shall continue to reflect and digest this for a very long time to come, the immediate gifts included seeing the devious and complex politics and power-play [both Roman AND Jewish] - seeing the separate, central stillness of Jesus in the tornado of brutality; and at the end when he came to stand among the crowd near his empty tomb, with no greeting, no 'Rabboni', to see so vivid a message that he is among us always, whether or not we see him... The text includes the synoptics and John, with transposed text [ie the woman caught in adultery appears near the beginning, to great effect: Jesus writing in the dust... at the end of the first half of the Play, when Jesus is led away for interrogation, there is an angel on stage alone... writing in the dust]
. Pilate is a compelling gestapo figure, laughing, sneering, utterly credible when he says he is bored by all their religion, and tells the priests to 'hop it' [literally 'vanish'] - passing the now-unthreatening prisoner to the soldiers for their amusement, before dealing with the Jewish Problem. This is the Play that has been re-viewed to make it less anti-semitic!! but the High Priests are appalling in their ganging-up, with only Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathia portrayed as potent voices for Christ yet who are over-ruled by the self-seeking power of the clique.
Without blasphemy, I saw Rowan Williams in this depiction of Jesus - as the still centre holding with integrity despite coming under those pressures which saw nothing of the purposes of God and everything about their own power and authority, the ability to pull people out of the city to shout for Barabbas [his release is suddenly seen as a huge slap-in-the-face for the Romans as he had plotted to overcome the Roman garrison and kill them!] seemed to parallel the factions in the Anglican Communion which cause such dissension - certainly not for God's sake.
Jesus in Gethsemane is portrayed as shouting to his Father, wanting reassurance/confirmation that this terrible pending violence must indeed be endured: it held echoes of something once said, because as he shouted he received all that he had needed, the assurance that he was not alone, that God is present with him, nothing can separate them. And for that reason [I think] there is no cry of despair from the cross, only 'I thirst' and then 'it is finished'.
Worth telling you that only those living there for a minimum 20 years can take part: there are 5,000 Oberammergau residents, of whom 1,500 are NATO [25 nationalities] and thus debarred from acting; and 1,000 are 'too busy' to take part in the play, so 2,500 people are available. They are almost all involved - the orchestra; a choir of 48 with 4 superb solo voices [and there are 3 alternating voices for the tenor/soprano/mezzo/bass]; an enormous cast which includes dozens of children, 4 camels [resident but not local] a horse, some sheep, and goats...
During the 5 months that the play is performed, there are 5 performances each week; there are 5,000 people attending each performance - a total of HALF-A-MILLION people will have seen the Passion Play this year.
The people of Oberammergau say that it is part of their lives - from the moment they are born, carried on as babies, then as the children running in the crowd scenes, or helping with the animals, through to singing in the choir, or playing in the Orchestra, or being part of the crowds swirling across the huge stage shouting 'crucify him'... so soon after they have yelled 'Hosanna'. The major parts each have two actors chosen 2 years ahead, so that they are on alternate nights [such intensity could not be sustained if it were every night].
The casting takes place the previous year; they begin rehearsals of the Choir in September, of the actors in November, and continue rehearsing SEVEN NIGHTS A WEEK from then until the play begins in May. Each performance lasts 5 hours: 2pm - 5.0 and then 8 - 10.30 - with a 3 hour break for dinner [though less by the time you have emerged, and allowed 45 minutes to get back in].
It is so powerful, because these are people who live their lives around the Passion Play, considering it the most amazing honour to be asked to take part, giving up their lives to it really. Every man involved has to grow his hair and beard for the previous year; they are famous for their exquisite wood-carvings [hugely expensive nativity scenes, crosses, and figures of Jesus] mainly in Maple and Lime ! the carving, and forestry, and farming, are the major employment - hard to do any other form of work when involved for so much of each day in the Play.
Our hostess, where we were staying in the Gasthof zur Rose, was typical of this: she was working very hard running her 25-bedroom guesthouse, greeting guests, and then appearing in the crowd scenes in the early parts of the first half [dashing back to be ready for our return to eat dinner] clearing up before returning to appear in the second half. Her 18-year-old daughter was in the Choir [greeted us afterwards 'I saw you all!'] with a beautiful voice... The pictures on Elisabeth's desk showed her father and grandfather in a sequence of photos with her as a small child in the play; then her as a girl in the Choir; then her, holding her first-born in the crowd; then her first-born as a young man in the play; then all her children taking part as young adults; and her presence throughout, with her father and grandfather in each of them as major roles [Caiaphas and Annas].
The other half of our party stayed with the co-Director, who gave them a talk in the evening of arrival and cared for them tenderly.
The village is a delight visually - the houses are painted with scenes from the Passion Play, and have extensive window-boxes filled with double-banks of scarlet geraniums [to repel flies and mosquitoes!!] All around are stunning mountain peaks, the tallest has a cross on top of the vertical crag. Almost a mono-culture, the fields are hay, and maize, with mud-coloured cows + wooden BELLS!! and surrounding pine forests. The rivers are the most beautiful pale-sea-green colour, ice-melt...
Now for the alternative drama.... context: a Stewards' Trust House Party - which has a framework of civilised companionship [how would you behave if you were staying with slightly formal friends], divided into discussion groups which gather to reflect on the excellent talk given each morning; an afternoon to explore, go for walks, chat, etc; then drinks before dinner.
Fifty of us, ranging in experience from a 'sitting' Judge, 2 practicing and 5 retired solicitors; Bankers, including the former 2nd-in-command of Barclays; engineers, including the Consultant on the Docklands Light Railway's upgrade for the Olympics; a current Head Mistress, and several recently-retired ones; a Surgeon-Professor [ie operating and teaching]; 6 [at least] GPs; 5 farmers, 1 of whom was a woman who farmed in her own right; 4 substantial land-owners; a psycho-therapist; a counsellor; a retired Oxford vicar, and 1 current one; an Oxford don; a Naval Captain; 2 administrators; 2 music teachers; a Modern-Dance-Adjudicator who teaches, as well as judging; people from S Africa, including one running a Game Farm [breeding wild animals to return to the wild, but not lions]; someone building a history centre at Rorke's Drift [Boer War - where my grandfather fought] using local labour; and so on - - it was a very varied and very interesting group.
Our party of 50 had spent 5 days at Bad Urach [near Stuttgart] preparing beforehand, then were collected by a super-modern, Mercedes coach for the 2 1/2 hour journey south. Our large driver was very relaxed, in his floral Bermuda shorts, as he set off at a good pace along the motorway. After about 20 minutes, while programming his TomTom [direction finder] he nearly drove into the back of a lorry - the front 4 rows could see clearly, and we shouted STOP loudly, and he swerved in time. A little later, he nearly drove off the road - and we shouted 'HI' and he straightened up. He then entered the next section of motorway without slowing down, right in front of a lorry which hooted long and loudly, as did the cars in the next lane... We were now really rather apprehensive, and kept a good look-out [so we could shout a warning?] - he swerved a lot, but seemed awake, and we sat tight. [People further back were aware of the manoeuvres, but not alarmed, and chatted happily - luckily.]
We stopped after an hour, for coffee, and resumed our journey hoping he too might be refreshed [though he hadn't emerged from the coach]. But he was travelling very fast - the German motorway speed limit is 60mph in fine weather, and less than that when it is raining ... we were driving in rain, at about 75mph - and we were very anxious about the driver's state. A number of us were silently praying, and 4 other couples had actually sent text messages to families to pray for us all.
Suddenly, without any warning, he swerved straight across the oncoming traffic, off the autobahn,[John said he could not see how a coach could possibly have fitted between the oncoming traffic to emerge from that motorway] into a narrow entrance to a very small motorway stop, careering in at right-angles, at such a speed we thought we might tip over - nearly hit the kerb, and then swerved across 3 oncoming cars,[which seemed almost to dematerialise - where did they go, they should all have hit us] finally shooting into a bus parking slot, with such speed we believed we might go through the hedge and back onto the motorway.
He stopped, and sat unmoved, with his hands folded across his stomach.
We had with us several GPs, a Head Mistress who spoke fluent German, and a psycho-therapist - she went forward and said gently to the coach-driver that he had made people frightened, driving so fast - no response. A GP went next, and with some German, asked him gently if he was well? [slight shrug] how were his eyes? [another roll of the shoulders] was he sleeping all right? [same response] she felt his responses were not normal - delayed, no 'yes' or 'no' and no emotion - and there was probably a medical problem.The HM spoke [German] to the driver - he said he was having his lunch break. He sat quite still, hands on tummy, not eating, drinking, or moving anything except his eyes.
Our good Christian group puzzled at a difficult situation: rang the agents in London to report the problem; asked for a new driver. As a safeguard, someone stood outside the bus, someone in the doorway - prepared to wait until a new driver appeared in [presumably] an hour.
I've read too many thrillers, probably, so was anxious that we took a more pro-active step to prevent any further horror - and asked if anyone was willing to remove the ignition keys, and to ring the police - with the feeling that such a driver would not hesitate to drive off after his lunch-break, whether or not someone was left behind. No-one could see the position of the keys, and no-one was keen to provoke the driver: and so we waited. But the wife of our neighbouring friends also felt removing the key was a good idea, so [being slim/small] she went forward to 'spot' - just as the driver's mobile rang, and he briefly leaned forward to answer it; allowing her to see the keys in the ignition. John and I got off the bus to wait in the fresh air [and rain] to ask a rather forceful surgeon if he would muster a few others in case the driver became aggressive.
Ten minutes later, his lunch-break being over, the driver turned on the ignition - and the 'spotter' leant forward, and removed the keys, quickly passing them to someone else - very bravely.
A group leader did ring the Police; the coach company 'boss' arrived [apparently the driver's son] and while they talked, I could see an enormous bag full of large lollipops beside the driver's seat... The GP thought that might indicate he was actually hypo-glycaemic - had an overdose of sugar - and thus liable to extreme mood-swings, eg anger. The Police came, very helpful, and listened to the coach driver's account [nothing the matter, nothing out of the normal, etc] - "we hear your story, but we prefer to believe the 50 passengers who were all frightened by your driving." so he had his licence endorsed, must re-train, and re-take his test to drive coaches, and have a medical.
Finally, after a 4-hour wait, another coach from a different company arrived... the coach and its wonderful driver, Sonya, that had been booked to take us to Munich airport after the Play - and we were preserved, blessed, and deeply shocked but so thankful... sure that the power of prayer alone had saved us all from death.
Prayers are like gold - as I'm certain that all prayer is gathered around those in great need... bless you and thank you - and we have been, in so many different ways, so greatly blessed.