Oberammergau, the Holy Lands, and a Missing Piece of our Pilgrimage

As we passed through Munich this morning, it felt geographically fitting to read a Religion News piece about the revival of the Obergammau passion play. Typically held every ten years by the villagers of this small village in Bavaria not far from Munich, it was scheduled to run in the summer of 2020. Turns out that the dramatic production restarted just last Saturday after a two-year Covid hiatus.

You should read the article for yourself. It’s mostly a fascinating discussion about how the play has evolved in a less antisemitic direction over the decades. The reason I bring it up, though, is that it occurred to me that we’ve lopped off a really important part of our spiritual heritage. If we really did this pilgrimage right, we would start our narrative in the Holy Lands, not Rome. In fact, that was the top destination for the earliest European pilgrims, who went to visit Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bones of the saints, and the Holy Lance, the Roman weapon that had pierced the side of Christ on the cross.

An unplanned layover in the Cologne train station from midnight to 3 a.m.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Holy Lands were a relatively hospitable place for pilgrims to visit. Palestine was ruled by Muslim rulers by this point, but enmity had not built up between the two great monotheistic religions. That changed for a variety of reasons in the eleventh century, especially due to Pope Urban II’s effort to recapture Jerusalem for Christendom. This military invasion—usually called the First Crusade—marked a fundamentally different approach. Prior to this point, the minority Christians had inhabited Jerusalem with a posture of peace and humility. But the invasion, especially when it culminated in atrocities during and after the Christian conquest, resulted in reprisals and bitterness.

As historian John Ure notes, this reshaped the entire concept of pilgrimage. While the Knights Hospitaller operated hospitals and hostelries, the more militant arm of the Knights Templar earned a terrible reputation for arrogance and intolerance. Muslim hostility and Christian violence sent pilgrimage to Palestine into free fall in the first centuries of the second millennium.

Pilgrims didn’t stop pilgriming though. They just went to different places. One of the most important was Santiago de Compostela, where St. James was said to be buried. Also Mount Athos in Greece, St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, the great abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset in England, and the island of Iona near Scotland.

And, of course, Rome. But we’ll discuss this in more depth next week when we’re actually get there ourselves.

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