Column from Germany: How Christian holidays regain their meaning in Germany

This year I have made a pleasant observation: In Germany, the „Karwoche“ („Holy Week“) has been revitalised.

In previous years, everyone in Germany already cheerfully wished everyone a Happy Easter in the days leading up to Good Friday! And Holy Saturday was colloquially referred to as Easter Saturday – even though it is actually the Saturday of Easter week, i.e. one week later.

This year, the media suddenly started referring to Holy Saturday almost constantly when it came to the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Why is this important? It is, if you want to understand the Easter events: Jesus’ crucifixion and painful death on Good Friday evening, the disciples’ uncertainty on Holy Saturday and the surprise on Easter morning greeted with jubilation: “Jesus is risen, He is truly risen!”

And a lot of people in Germany need to learn about it. After all, according to surveys, only 47 per cent of people in Germany know that Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. In Eastern Germany (formerly communist), only a quarter think of the Biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day after His death when celebrating Easter, compared to 52 per cent in Western Germany.

Good Friday procession in Berlin. Photo EPA, Hannibal Hanschke

In total, 15 per cent of 20 to 29-year-olds believe that the birth of Jesus is celebrated at Easter. Nine per cent of the respondents know nothing at all about the religious background of the Christian holidays, while three per cent of this age group believe that Jesus’ wedding is the reason for Easter.

Just over a third (37 per cent) considered attending a church service to be part of the Easter celebration – but only one quarter actually did. Interestingly, younger people were more likely to go to church than those belonging to older age groups.

In a country where the Reformation took place 500 years ago, but where today only less than half of the population is Christian, I find these figures encouraging.

It was also very encouraging that the private TV channel RTL staged the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a major event for the second time – an idea imported from the Netherlands, which also depicts Good Friday in detail. In the Netherlands, “The Passion” has been one of the most successful TV events at Easter for more than 13 years and reaches an audience of millions there.

In Kassel, central Germany, where the event took place live on the Wednesday of Holy Week, 8,000 spectators bought tickets and there were long queues at the entrance. The Passion of Jesus was staged live at several locations in the city and transported into the present day with pop songs.

More importantly, however, 2.23 million viewers tuned in for the three-hour broadcast – a satisfactory TV audience share for the private broadcaster and a market share of 9.7 per cent. Among younger viewers between the ages of 14 and 49, it even achieved 12.4 per cent of the total number of viewers.

I also found it impressive that RTL was able to attract many pop and show stars – who don’t embody Christian content every day. Singer, actor and presenter Ben Blümel took on the main role of Jesus, Jimi Blue Ochsenknecht was Judas, Francis Fulton-Smith was Pontius Pilate, Timur Ülker was Peter, Nadja Benaissa from No Angels was Maria and Reiner Calmund. The actor, author and environmental activist Hannes Jaenicke narrated the Easter story.

The churches in Kassel supported and complemented the spectacle with many of their own activities. After all, RTL and the many celebrities left the city again on Maundy Thursday – but it is important that the people who were touched by this find contacts and hopefully also a home in church communities.

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