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Pageant is a powerful gift of faith

MESA, Ariz. — The official title is "Jesus the Christ," but people here simply call it the Annual Easter Pageant.

In fact, they've been calling it that for 70 years, from the day it debuted as a simple sunrise service performed on the flatbed of an old cotton wagon.

Now, 15,000 people show up each night on the grounds of the Mesa Arizona Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to see a modern passion play with production values that would wow a Broadway producer.

And last Thursday, I got to see it for the first time.

I went with my wife, her sister and a "ringer" — Sandy Ruffin, a solid Protestant whose father was a Methodist minister.

I'd heard the pageant attracted a large cross section of Christians — that there were non-LDS folks in the cast and other faiths encouraged their members to attend — so I was interested to gauge Sandy's reaction.

After the finale — when Christ ascends heavenward in a robe whiter than a comet — I looked over at Sandy.

She had tears in her eyes.

"What a great gift to the community," she said.

And it was.

For beginners, I couldn't believe the time, talent and design work that had gone into tableaus that were merely 20 seconds long.

Talk about a labor of love.

"How do you think Pastor Ruffin would like it?" I asked.

Sandy smiled.

"You have to remember," she said, "Pastor Ruffin didn't think in terms of Mormon stuff and Baptist stuff. For him it was all jam. What flavor would you like?"

Having been born and submerged in the LDS faith, I clicked on all the "Mormon moments" in the production — the emphasis on the atonement in the garden, the hints of sacred language in the Adam and Eve scene.

"Did the Mormon things trouble you?" I asked.

Sandy gave me a strange look.

"Mormon things?" she said. "Maybe I'm just dense, but I didn't see Mormon things. I saw the story of Jesus from the Bible. And they did a great job with it."

Riding home, I thought how often we make a show of being ecumenical or interfaith, when the most rewarding moments and deepest connections tend to occur naturally, without fanfare, when hearts begin to beat together — as when people of different faiths tear up together watching a man in a robe rise to the skies.

That's the good stuff — the spontaneous stuff.

That's the meat and potatoes of spirituality.

That's what happens at "Jesus the Christ," the popular and profound Annual Easter Pageant at the Mesa Arizona Temple.