Except for Christ's birthday celebration at Christmas, Easter is the most important time of the year for Christians, says the Rev. Dale E. McArthur, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, 203 S. Second East, Salt Lake City.

His church, like Christian churches throughout Utah and around the world, will celebrate Palm Sunday tomorrow, March 19, and Easter next Sunday, March 26.On Thursday, Rev. McArthur's congregation - like many other Protestants - will celebrate Maundy Thursday, which commemorates Jesus washing the disciples' feet. The communion service begins at 7:30 p.m. Catholics will celebrate Holy Thursday on that day.

Many churches will celebrate Good Friday March 24 and on Saturday, March 25, many Protestant churches observe Holy Saturday. Catholics will hold Easter Vigil or Holy Saturday.

Attendance at Christian churches on Easter Sunday, March 26, is expected to be the largest of the year except for Christmas.

A huge cedar cross has been set up in the front of the chancel at McArthur's church, and for several weeks Sunday church services have contained a 10- to 15-minute dialogue about Jesus. Parts have been read by church members who have taken the parts of Mary, the disciple John, the two thieves who died on the cross with Jesus, and others.

"We want to make Easter as meaningful as possible and give our congregation the message that Easter should be a time of joy, a time of rebirth and hope."

McArthur said many people find the story of Jesus' trial and his crucifixion sad and disquieting, "but they must remember that all these events led to his resurrection.

"Before Jesus, there was no hope for eternal life. Jesus showed us all, through his resurrection, that there is hope, that there is life after death. This should make us happy and joyful."

On Palm Sunday, McArthur's church service will begin at 11 a.m. with a procession by little children carrying palm leaves and singing. Similar services are planned throughout the valley. (See accompanying listing).

On Easter, the cross inside the First United Methodist Church, which has stood stark and awkward for several weeks, will be covered with lillies and, McArthur said, "will be beautiful, a symbol of the hope that is the resurrection."