In 1980, my mother-in-law, who was German, took us to see the Oberammergau Passion play in Germany and we had an amazing time. With my wife’s mother fluent in German we had a gastronomic and historical tour of Bavaria and ended up seeing this wonderful play. In Oberammergau we stayed overnight with a Bavarian family and slept soundly in the duck filled bed mattress, and ate a gigantic German breakfast.
Everything was organised with German precision – even free buses were arranged around the village. Sadly this year it will be the first time since 1633 that the play will not be performed because of the coronavirus. Extraordinarily in 1633 the villages agreed to perform the play every ten years because the plague, which had been sweeping its way across Europe, avoided their village!
For those who have not been to the Passion play, it is difficult explain how wonderful it is. 2,500 people, mostly villagers, take part in the play, and the very large stage at times has 900 people on stage. With a vast choir and orchestra this open air play continues in whatever weather there is.
The play tells of Christ’s passion and it begins with the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. The noise from this mass of villagers is great and white doves are released across the stage as Christ enters the massive theatre on a donkey. At first you can’t see Christ and then you see him with the disciples waving psalms, and as they sing the Psalm 118, Jesus comes into the city riding on a donkey. This is the story for today – it is Palm Sunday.
If you have received a palm cross in the post then take it into your hand and remember that this palm was made by Christians in Africa and is made from a single strand of dried palm. The money paid for these palms helps fund their churches, and so we are being blessed by God on this day but also giving our love to very vibrant and young churches.
I can just imagine the scene – wonderful moving hymns, dancing and above all amazingly coloured best clothes for church services on a Sunday. Many will have travelled miles to attend the service and the whole morning and part of the afternoon will be taken up with worship and fellowship.
Palm Sunday is a special day. Clergy and churches are adorned in red to remind us that this is a festival but soon the blood of Jesus would shed on the cross. As Christ enters Jerusalem so began holy week. One can only imagine the thoughts going through Jesus’ mind as he celebrates with the disciples but prepares for the most brutal execution created by man. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote at the time that about 1 million pilgrims would come into Jerusalem and many would sleep in tents around the hills outside of Jerusalem. It was a very special time for everyone.
That Jesus chose to come into Jerusalem on a donkey was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah but also for me it shows that Jesus came into the city and fulfilled his ministry of service and simplicity. When this virus ends, which it will do, I believe that as a church we may look again at the purpose of the church. As Christians we need to prioritise what we do and realise that we are servants of the community and that we should try not to complicate the faith.
For me the key fact of Holy Week and the Passion story is that so many people involved actually did not realise who was in front of them. The crowds certainly did not know. Crowds, as we know from Royal difficulties, can be very fickle. One moment everyone loves the Queen and the next moment the TV is full of doubt. Never trust a crowd!
Then we have the Chief Priests who were devious and ignorant – Marian and I have met a few in authority over the years with such traits. The Chief Priests studied their scriptures but could not see that in front of them was the Son of God, the Messiah. Pilate was only interested in self-preservation, as we have seen during this crisis when some politicians try to score political points on Question Time and forget that people and NHS workers are suffering.
Then the mockers which Jesus had at all turns. People love to kick people when they are down. Let’s be a church which helps people when they are down – many people will be down after this crisis and the work of the church should prioritise this over buildings!
I would like you to use this week not only to use the thoughts for the day on line but also to realise that often in life we miss the obvious. Maybe, with time on our hands, we use this time to get nearer to God, create our own priorities and look to the future with hope. God bless you all.
Adrian Bell (in isolation!)