What is a passion play?

Why passion plays have become a ‘graphic,’ integral part of Easter for Atlanta churches

In preparation for Easter celebrations, some Christian congregations honor their faith by sharing the suffering and salvation of Jesus in a way that is both vivid and touching to those believers who witness it.

»RELATED: Why is it called Good Friday and what’s so good about it?

Performed on Good Friday, or as part of Holy Week, passion plays dramatize the Biblical telling of Jesus Christ's last hours before crucifixion.

"While today's video games are probably more graphic, in our performance, when Jesus comes up on the cross, he's bloody, he's beaten. When he's carrying the cross piece, our soldiers are beating him with a whip. This year we put extra padding on him, so when he's being beaten, you can hear it," said Jeff Powell, missions pastor at Villa Rica First Baptist Church. "It's nowhere near as graphic as Mel Gibson in ‘The Passion of The Christ,’ but for West Georgia, it's graphic."

The performers and the clergy who lead them emphasize that all the energy, pageantry and even the violence have deep meaning.

"The purpose of the play is to give our audience a picture of the suffering of Jesus Christ," said Lorena Marceleno, who, with husband Emmanuell Almaguer, has directed the living Stations of the Cross performed by members of St. John Paul II Mission in Gainesville for 13 years. "There is only one day where you can portray all the suffering he endured for us, and that is on Good Friday. Our ministry has prepared spiritually since January, when rehearsals start. We fast and we pray. With each rehearsal we come closer to God. Our ministry, Messengers of Christ, is here to evangelize and through this art we express our faith."

First known passion play

The first recognizable passion play was performed in 1633 in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau. As the story goes (as recorded by a village priest), all of Bavaria was suffering from famine, the ill effects of the Thirty Years War and the plague. "Believing the contemporary saying that 'war, pestilence, and famine are the three scourges of God,' the villagers of Oberammergau made a solemn vow: Every 10 years, they would perform a passion play depicting the final week of Jesus' life, including his resurrection," according to Catholic Digest.

According to this tale, the plague-related deaths ceased, and, with the exception of intervening world events (such as in 1940 with World War II), the villagers have continued this tradition ever since. The 41st Oberammergau passion play was in 2010 and drew half a million visitors.

While Atlanta-area passion plays like the Good Friday Stations of the Cross at Gainesville's Laurel Park use rope for the "crucifixion" of the actors playing Jesus and the two theives, actors in other countries sometimes use actual nails for the performance.
Photo: Contributed by St. John Paul II Mission church and Messengers of Christ ministry, Gainesville, Georgia/For the AJ AJC

The tradition continues in Georgia

And while Oberammergau is nearly 5,000 miles away, the tradition of the passion play is alive in metro Atlanta. The First Baptist Church's Atlanta Passion Play was a much-loved institution, drawing enormous crowds to the Atlanta Civic Center, before ending in 2011 after 35 years of performances. But new plays have come up since then, while others have persisted and grown more popular.

The Stations of the Cross in Gainesville is one passion play that has steadily grown over the years. "From 1990 to 2004 the play was organized at St. Michael's Catholic Church," notes Marceleno, who first participated in 1994 as part of her catechism class. "We outgrew the church and then the parking lot. We moved to Laurel Park in 2004 and had about 2,000 spectators. From there, each year the audience has grown. We really have never counted the people but I'm positive we've had over 5,000 spectators."

Now in its fourth year, Villa Rica First Baptist Church's passion play is a "great way to present the gospel in a way other churches aren't," said Powell, who guides one of the fastest-growing congregations in Georgia. "This helps us fulfill the Great Commandment (Acts 1:8) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), which are at the heart of our mission. As the Bible says, 'you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'"

St. John Paul II Mission and Messengers of Christ ministry has been presenting live Stations of the Cross on Good Friday for 29 years. In 2019 it will be at Gainesville's Laurel Park starting at 11 a.m.
Photo: Contributed by St. John Paul II Mission church and Messengers of Christ ministry, Gainesville, Georgia/For the AJ AJC

For Father Joseph Shaute of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Douglasville, the results are worth all the practice and costume budget and disruption.

"We are visual people, and having this story visually in front of you impacts you at a deeper level," Shaute said of the passion play now in its fourteenth year. "They usually say, 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?' When it's live in front of you like this there's no detachment. You can't run from it. You have to face all the emotions. The agony on Jesus' face, Mary's grief. You enter more into the story."

And while so much of religious belief is private, particularly the concept of salvation and redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus, these congregations want everyone to show up for the show.

"This is something special that we're honored to do. Some of the people acting feel like it's part of their personal calling. Between the faith that's behind the performance and the faith of everybody that comes, it's a powerful and amazing day spiritually," Shaute adds

If you're interested in experiencing a passion play, consider these performances:

Stations of the Cross at Laurel Park in Gainesville

11 a.m., Friday, April 19, Laurel Park, 3100 Old Cleveland Hwy, Gainesville

St. John Paul II Mission Roman Catholic Church and Messengers of Christ ministry present this live action stations of the cross, featuring more than 100 actors, for the 29th time. 

Ecumenical Good Friday Pilgrimage

9 a.m., Friday, April 19, Downtown Atlanta

Described as a multilingual walking prayer, the pilgrimage begins at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (48 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive SW). Auxiliary Bishop Joel Konzen, SM, will lead the 2-mile pilgrimage that concludes with a closing prayer at the crypt of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Spanish Living Stations of the Cross

3 p.m., Friday April 19

St. George Catholic Church

771 Roscoe Road, Newnan. 770-251-5353

 A chance to see a passion play conducted entirely in Spanish. 

Via Crucis of Corpus Christi Church

8 a.m., Friday, April 19, 1000 Robert E. Lee Blvd., Stone Mountain

Parishioners of Corpus Christi Catholic Church host Via Crucis or Stations of the Cross at Stone Mountain Park. Volunteers in costume re-enact the Stations of the Cross for the crowd during the hike up the west side of the mountain.

St. Theresa Catholic Church Passion Play

Noon, Friday, April 19, 4401 Prestley Mill Rd., Douglasville

A group of parishioners gathers to perform a live presentation of the Passion of Christ every year on Good Friday.

Passion Play at Villa Rica First Baptist Church

7 p.m., Thursday, April 18; 3 p.m., Friday, April 19; 7 p.m., Saturday, April 20; 1483 W Highway 78, Villa Rica

About 33 miles from Atlanta, this church performance is free, but attendance is limited to 1,000 people per performance, so tickets are required. Call the church at 770-459-5138 for more information.

»RELATED: Where to eat Easter brunch and dinner in metro Atlanta 

participated in 1994 as part of my catechism class 

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