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A busy, Holy Week

Congregations strive to attract faithful for Easter

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You'll find them at the sand dunes as well as inside the sanctuary; at sunrise on a mountain peak and at the morning egg hunt behind the church; in the choir seats and the congregation.

Whatever Utahns' personal or family rituals, Easter offers the hope of spring and new life for both body and soul.

The annual Christian celebration of Jesus' final days, his crucifixion and resurrection, Holy Week ranks alongside Christmas as the busiest time of the year for area churches, drawing attendance from some dubbed "CEOs" by one online dictionary, denoting their worship on "Christmas and Easter Only."

But local clergy aren't complaining. In fact, one said while it may be added pressure to craft a meaningful message, "it's not about me anyway."

What it is about is looking to make the various activities relevant in today's world, said Pastor Steve Klemz of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.

A Harris Poll examining the religious beliefs of Americans in December 2005 showed 70 percent of the nearly 900 respondents believe Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God, and 66 percent believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But that's where most of the agreement ends regarding the interpretation of Christ's gospel and the celebration of his final days.

Holy Week celebrations include more variety and adaptation in ritual and practice among traditional Christians than any other time of the year. Easter worship and ritual at Salt Lake-area Christian churches provide a broad spectrum of activity, with each church incorporating at least one, but not all, of the following:

• Foot-washing, usually performed during evening services on Holy Thursday.

• Stations of the Cross, a Catholic tradition retracing the final hours of Christ's life and ministry. Area churches host an interdenominational Good Friday Procession of the Cross downtown, featuring prayer, readings from scripture and hymn singing, with a large wooden cross carried by participants through city streets.

• Seder meals. Though Jewish in origin, most Christians believe the Last Supper was a celebration of the Jewish Seder, or Passover, meal. Jews don't tie the Seder to Jesus and will celebrate the Passover in mid-April this year.

• Labyrinth walking. Some churches provide a permanent or temporary circular labyrinth as a vehicle to promote Christian contemplation during Lent and Holy Week.

• Confession, a formal rite or sacrament for Catholics and some Protestants.

• Easter vigil, a contemplative service usually held the night of Holy Saturday as the first celebration of Easter morning.

• Sunrise service, held locally as an annual interdenominational service on a mountain peak at Snowbird; other churches hold such services in parks or in their sanctuaries.

• Egg hunts, often held as a way to help children understand Easter symbolism. Some are done in conjunction with a breakfast for congregants.

• Pageants, many re-enacting the crucifixion and/or the morning of Christ's resurrection.

• Easter Sunday services featuring traditional rites such as Eucharist or sacrament, or contemporary worship.

Pastor Klemz said he's been at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church for 16 years, and the congregation has been doing a Seder meal at least that long. "We do this not in a way to say that we're more complete or we've enhanced the Seder by doing it with a New Testament perspective, but we do find it's a way to ground ourselves in Hebrew scripture, looking at salvation, promise and freedom."

His congregants use the Seder as a "springboard into Holy Week. It's always done it on Saturday before Palm Sunday." He knows of other congregations that do it in different ways and says it's something his congregation has adopted as "a great way to have a great meal and remember the freedom we have."

He admits it's become a culinary delight, too, because the chef who used to cook for the cast of "Touched by an Angel" has prepared the lamb for his flock in recent years.

Participants don't expect the ritual to strictly follow Jewish tradition, and this year Pastor Klemz stressed biblical injunctions about "welcoming the stranger" because immigration has been such a hot-button political issue of late. "It helps make it a bit more relevant."

While many attend Easter services expecting to focus on Christ, some faiths expand their message to include other topics.

This year's Easter message from the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, asked congregants to consider "how can your living let others live more abundantly?" She said "caring for creation" is fundamental to caring for one's neighbor.

"We are not respecting the dignity of our fellow creatures if our sewage or

garbage fouls their living space. When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?

"The food we eat, the energy we use, the goods and foods we buy, the ways in which we travel, are all opportunities — choices and decisions — to be for others, both human and other. Our Christian commitment is for this — that we might live that more abundant life, and that we might do it in a way that is for the whole world."

Locally, Christ United Methodist Church has expanded its Easter activities in the past few years to include a "Jerusalem marketplace." Associate Pastor Tom Towns said the three-hour annual event held on Palm Sunday started about four years ago as "our attempt to help people experience the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem."

Booths featuring Middle Eastern foods, costumes, farm animals, carpentry, leatherwork and basketweaving are set up in the church, and copies of a well-known Jewish prayer are recited and distributed to the children, who are shown how to write their names in Hebrew.

Pastor Steve Goodier reviews the symbolism of the food used in the Seder meal.

"We have a great response. People love it, and they come," Pastor Towns said.

The church's youth group offers an experience called "Peter's Walk," a contemplative experience designed to evoke the feelings Peter had as he accompanied Jesus during his final hours.

The church also provides a large, canvas labyrinth on the floor of the chapel on selected days during Lent for those seeking meditation, contemplative reflection and prayer. "It's a time to reflect on our lives and take a serious look at who we are. Walking the labyrinth gives us the opportunity to focus on our relationship with Jesus and with God."

Pastor Towns said attendance spikes during Easter, and he expects they'll be setting up extra chairs for the three Sunday services, which feature the church's own Wesley Bell Ringers.

Across the valley, Father Francisco Pires will be literally scurrying to different locations to provide Holy Week services for parishioners at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Riverton. The congregation usually meets in a movie theater at The District on Bangerter Highway because their building is still under construction.

So this year's celebration of Stations of the Cross on Friday was held at nearby Wasatch Lawn Memorial Cemetery, with both English and Spanish versions provided. Saturday and Sunday services will be held in a banquet room at the Megaplex that will accommodate up to 400 people, where a makeshift baptismal font for head-dipping will be set up for the 10 scheduled baptisms on Easter Sunday.

Father Pires has a van that's been dubbed "the Sacristy" where he keeps all of the equipment necessary to provide Mass each week, setting it up before each service and moving it back to the van when it's finished. Though the movement can be exhausting, particularly at such a busy time of year, "I've told some people, I think we'll miss this way of doing things," when the church is finished in the next few months. "It's quite different, and we can't be perfectionist. We have to accommodate whatever we have and the space we have."

Utah's largest faith tradition doesn't celebrate Holy Week because Latter-day Saints don't follow traditional Christian ritual and practice. But Easter Sunday services are focused on Christ, usually featuring special music and messages about Jesus' atonement and resurrection.

After more than a year of heavy publicity about its beliefs and practices during Mitt Romney's presidential quest, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has put up a new Web site in recent weeks focusing exclusively on the central role Christ plays in the faith, at www.JesusChrist.lds.org.

The LDS Church does host an annual Easter pageant on its temple grounds in Mesa, Ariz., one of several produced throughout the year with different themes in different locations around the U.S.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com