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Different congregations, different ways to celebrate Holy Week

Published: Saturday, March 23 2013 12:11 p.m. MDT

Rev. Rick Lawson, right, and Caryl Marsh, center, wash Carole Merril's feet during Maundy Thursday mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Salt Lake City in 2008.       (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) Rev. Rick Lawson, right, and Caryl Marsh, center, wash Carole Merril's feet during Maundy Thursday mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Salt Lake City in 2008. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The heady scent of something delicious drifted from the kitchen in the office area associated with the Cathedral of St. Mark in downtown Salt Lake City Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm cooking lamb," said the Very Rev. Ray Waldon, the jovial, personable dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark. "It's for a series of presentations we've been doing on the last seven words of Jesus. Each time we've served a dish from the time of Jesus — something Jesus might have eaten.

"Of course," Rev. Waldon adds, playfully, "he didn't leave us any recipes."

Recreating tastes and smells that Jesus might have tasted and smelled is consistent with the Episcopal approach to Holy Week worship, during which certain events of the last week of Jesus' life are recreated "to help us remember."

For example, on Palm Sunday — this year, Sunday, March 24 — worshippers will have a procession that will take them outside the cathedral complex, waving palm fronds just as Jesus' followers did during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem the first day of Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday — traditionally the day of Jesus' Last Supper with his apostles and the night of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane — a priest will reenact Christ's washing of his disciples' feet, which took place on that night.

"We also remove everything from the altar — the candles, the cross, the kneelers, everything — and the priest cleans the altar with a palm brush," Rev. Waldon said. "This signifies what the world would be like if Jesus left. It's a very moving part of our liturgy. It always overwhelms me as a priest, and I've been doing this for two decades."

Good Friday features a big wooden cross as well as a series of prayers at the 14 Stations of the Cross, placed on the walls around the cathedral. It is a day of sober meditation and contemplation on the crucifixion of Christ. On Saturday there is the Easter vigil, and then on Sunday there is an intentional liturgical movement from sadness into great joy — joy that is enhanced, Rev. Waldon says, because of a full week of recreating the events of Holy Week.

"I think that's why for Episcopalians Easter is so joyful," he said. "We've lived the week. We've taken part. We've remembered."

Remembering Jesus Christ at Easter is also important for Pastor Matthew Johnson and his congregation at Grace Baptist Church in West Valley City. But their approach is less focused on programs and physical re-creations, and more focused on what Pastor Johnson calls memorializing.

"Baptists have historically taken a memorial view of things," said Pastor Johnson while sitting at his desk in an office just off the church's sanctuary. "Things like communion or sacrament or baptism or holy day celebrations are viewed from a memorial perspective. On Easter we remember his death and resurrection. We don't have a liturgy that we have to follow — we have a lot of freedom how we choose to remember his resurrection as a congregation."

Even among different Baptist churches there are differences in Easter observance.

"Here at Grace Baptist we believe that Jesus was actually crucified on Thursday, so we will have a Thursday evening service during which we will spend some time in solemn prayer considering this," the pastor said, adding that "another Baptist church I know celebrates on Friday because they believe Christ was crucified on Friday."

"We don't have a beef with them," he continued. "It's a matter of choice and of conscience — for them and for us. We believe what we believe and we're going to follow our conscience, even if that means we're going upstream."

The Thursday night service at Grace Baptist Church will include a discussion of the Jewish Passover, drawing symbolism from how the angel of death passed over the children of Israel for how "when God the Father sees the blood of Christ he passes over our sins," Pastor Johnson said.

"We will sing hymns concerning the cross," he continued. "I will end by urging our members to consider for the next three days the cross, to make it part of their daily meditation in the word of God to think about sin, sacrifice, and who Jesus is and what he has done. I will pray for them to focus on that for three days."

On Easter Sunday a "quiet, contemplative" communion service begins at 8:30 a.m., followed by a pot luck brunch.

"There's actually a philosophical reason for that," the pastor said. "We begin in the morning where we left off Thursday night, with a mood that is still quiet and somber. Then we eat and we fellowship and the excitement begins to build, so when we start our 10:30 Easter worship service we're ready to fully rejoice with songs that are uplifting and exciting and a sermon celebrating the resurrection."

It's all about building a memorial mood, from contemplative reflection to joyful exultation — but in a more internal way.

"We've never been a Baptist congregation that goes in for demonstrations," Pastor Johnson said, smiling.

At South Mountain Community Church in Draper, the approach by Pastor Paul Robie and his congregation is similar.

"Good Friday and Easter are the highest of high holy days for us," Pastor Robie said. Then he paused and leaned back in his office chair, chuckling at what he just said.

"That's pretty 'high church' kind of terminology for us," he said. "We're actually 'low church.' We're not liturgical at all."

Still, all three campuses of SMCC hold both Good Friday and Easter services — something that Pastor Robie says "is not super common" among Protestant churches.

"We believe that all of the promises of Christ were fulfilled on Good Friday when he died on the cross," he said. "Easter is the verification of that. You can say all you want that Jesus paid for mankind's sins and that he won a victory over sin, Satan and death. But you can't believe it unless it is verified, and the Easter story is what verifies all those claims."

The Good Friday service at SMCC is "very somber — almost like a funeral," the pastor said.

"You're going to an execution," he explained. "Everyone onstage is wearing black. The music is down and contemplative."

In addition to communion, Pastor Robie said, this year he is going to ask those in the congregation to write the sins that burden them on a piece of paper.

"They will be taking it to the cross," he said. "They are unburdening themselves from those sins that have placed them into bondage. We will see the exchange."

Whereas the Good Friday service is subdued, the Easter service is, in the pastor's words, "up, up, up!"

"Our Easter celebration is through the roof," he said — a significant statement given the height and width of the roof at SMCC's still-new facility in Draper. "We only use a choir once or twice a year, but this is one of those times. Music is a big part of our Easter service, and we make it bright and loud. We rejoice in every way we know how."

At the end of the service, Pastor Robie said he hopes people walk out the door feeling hope in Christ.

"Our hope is not wishful thinking," he said. "And it isn't just being hopeful. Christian hope is an attitude of confidence that what Christ promised has been delivered."

And that hope, said Pastor Jeff Beebe of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, is what Easter is all about.

"My prayer is that those who attend our service will not be hopeful, but hope-filled," Pastor Beebe said in a telephone interview. "The message of Easter ultimately is that life is more powerful than death, that hope is more powerful than despair, that death does not have the final say in our lives. For all these things we should be overjoyed."

To lead members of their congregation to that feeling, Pastor Beebe and his staff take an approach to Holy Week and Easter that is closer to the Episcopal approach than to the Grace Baptist or SMCC approach, with a full week of services and experiences aimed at helping people "reflect more on the meaning of Christ's resurrection and what it means for them in their lives."

"If people take the journey of Holy Week they are more likely to appreciate and feel that on Easter," Pastor Beebe said. "You've actually walked the way of Christ. I think that's more meaningful than just jumping into Easter."

Holy Week at Our Savior's Lutheran Church begins on Palm Sunday with a processional complete with palm fronds and a complete reading of the entire passion story as a congregational reading.

"We divide the parts, give different people in the congregation different parts of the story to read," Pastor Beebe said. "I let the story stand as it is. I don't preach on it. The practical side of it is, there are many people who can't come to our weekday Holy Week services, so at least they hear the whole Easter story on Palm Sunday."

Weekday services include a symbolic foot-washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday ("A lot of people are uncomfortable with washing feet, so we wash hands," Pastor Beebe said), a dramatic Good Friday presentation during which the sanctuary grows progressively darker as the crucifixion of Christ is soberly remembered and a sunrise service Easter morning at 7 a.m.

"We celebrate the resurrection with Easter hymns and scriptures," the pastor said. "Then we do an Easter breakfast and an Easter egg hunt for the children. We try to make it a joyful, happy morning for everyone."

Which all four pastors agree is just what Easter should be.

email: jwalker@deseretnews.com

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