National Lutheran News

Christian passion plays have a long history

Johanna Meier plays he role of Mary, Jesus' mother, in the Black Hills Passion Play

Johanna Meier plays he role of Mary, Jesus' mother, in the Black Hills Passion Play

Mel Gibson’s new film is not a new phenomenon

While Christians by the tens of thousands queue up to see Mel Gibson’s violent portrayal of the last hours of Jesus’ life, producers of the Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, South Dakota, go quietly about their tasks, preparing for the coming summer season. They’ve been staging their version of “the passion of the Christ” for 65 years — since 1939.

Telling the story of Jesus’ passion (suffering and death) is an enterprise as old as the first telling of the “Jesus story” itself. Some students of Scripture have argued that the four New Testament Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — are really passion accounts with long introductions. While that may be an exaggeration, there is some truth in the argument. (Consider how many chapters of each Gospel are devoted to the preparation for Jesus’ last week, and then the reporting of its events.)

Because Jesus’ death has been considered to have saving significance in the Christian community, the faithful have long nurtured the custom of dramatizing the passion story.
During the Middle Ages, communities began to hold “passion plays,” complete with costumed figures and sometimes animals and props, to remind Christians what Jesus suffered for them. The earliest on record originated at the north German city of Luenen, at the Cappenburg Monastery in 1242.

The most famous is the still-running Oberammergau Passion Play, named for the tiny south German village where it began several hundred years ago. The citizens of Oberammergau are said to have promised God that, should they escape the perils of a plague then ravaging central Europe, they would stage such a play at regular intervals, as an act of community thanksgiving.

One of the tragic by-products of medieval passion plays was the sometimes spontaneous outpouring of hatred toward local Jewish communities. There are stories of passion play audiences going directly from the performance to the nearest synagogue, where reprisals against perceived “Christ killers” were carried out.

With the advent of Mel Gibson’s passion film on Ash Wednesday, members of the American Jewish community, including some in the Twin Cities, have warned of similar possible eruptions (see a story, page 1). But those who stage passion plays these days have taken steps to remind their viewers that it is Christian believers who bear the guilt for Jesus’ death, not specifically the Jews.

During March an advertisement in a local daily newspaper carried a religious ad asking the question, “Who killed Jesus?” The answer given in the ad was, “Nobody!” (The point being made was, Jesus gave up his life willingly, for the sake of the world.)

Twin Cities Lutherans have an opportunity each summer to see a long-running re-enactment of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection by driving several hundred miles, to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The Black Hills Passion Play began as a touring company, settling in Spearfish, South Dakota in the summer of 1939. A simple outdoor pavilion was later replaced by a permanent hillside theater (see photo). The annual productions have collected over 10 million viewers over more than six decades.
The annual performances, which also go on the road and include winter performances in Lake Wales, Florida, are co-produced by Guido Della Vecchia and production director, Johanna Meier (pictured).

Actors are recruited from all parts of the country. The production takes two hours and 15 minutes, presenting 22 continuous scenes and using animals including camels, donkeys, horses, pigeons and sheep. The cast includes around 150.

For more information about the Black Hills Passion Play, go to www.blackhills. com/bhpp.