Easter in Greenbelt
Teachers have long known that history can be taught, not only through lectures, but through a variety of methods which convey the immediacy of the past. In the same manner, Greenbelt's Christians used the religious services of Holy Week and Easter 1996 as an opportunity to recreate the events described in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Through music, art, prayer, sermons, and drama, the local churches sought to convey their members' beliefs that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died two thousand years ago in order to save humankind.
MUSIC OLD AND NEW
"Do you know why we're carrying palms?" asked the Rev. Arthur Shotts to the seven children sitting beside him on the floor of Mowatt Memorial United Methodist Church.
"For Jesus," came the prompt reply. The pastor nodded and pointed to the sketch he had made of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowd waved palms at him.
Everything at Mowatt told that Easter was near. The cross on the wall was veiled in a violet cloth for Lent, the weeks of penitence leading up to the Holy Week. Members of the congregation clutched palm leaves as they sang "All glory, laud, and honor," the traditional hymn of Palm Sunday.
Mowatt had chosen to celebrate the first day of the Christian Holy Week by blending old music with new music. Modern popular Christian music was playing as the congregation members entered the church, having received their palms from a bevy of brightly-dressed young girls. At one end of the church was an organ; at the other end was a set of shiny red drums.
The service consisted of a lengthy reading from the Gospel of Matthew telling of Jesus' final week of life, but the reading was punctuated by traditional hymns with lines such as, "On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross."
"Are there any other prayers that anyone would like to lift up?" Rev. Shotts asked the people.
"For the people who don't know the Easter story," a woman replied.
LIGHTS GOING OUT
The Rev. Daniel Hamlin stood behind the plain wooden communion table in the Greenbelt Community Church and spoke the words which he said at every Communion service: "Our Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed—" He stopped and looked up at the congregation sitting in the dim evening light of the church. Then he broke away from the script and added quietly, "This night."
For Christians throughout Greenbelt, Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday was a time of both joy and sorrow. Joy, because the day commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus and his followers, the supper on which the Christian Communion service is based. Sorrow, because it also commemorates the night that Jesus was arrested.
The Community Church (affiliated with the United Church of Christ) chose to observe the holy day with a simple adaptation of the ancient service of Tenebrae. Eight members of the congregation sat at a long table and read excerpts from the New Testament which told of Jesus' last hours. At the end of each section of readings, a candle was extinguished.
"Go to dark Gethsemane," the congregation sang. "See [Jesus] in the judgment hall."
The goal of the service was to have the congregation live through the experiences of those final, dark moments in Jesus' life. The congregation was assigned the role of the crowd which urged Jesus' execution by torture, and when the people cried out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" the church vibrated with the sound.
The last candle was extinguished, the church was plunged into darkness, and the congregation left in silence.
CLOSE TO DEATH
Death was everywhere in Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Black cloths were draped over the pulpit, lectern, and altar; a crown of thorns like the one Jesus was forced to wear hung from the ceiling. The Rev. Stephen Mentz walked alone down the aisle, holding a processional cross draped with more black cloth. As he neared the front of the church, the cross was framed against the back wall's wooden relief of a sacrificial lamb symbolizing Jesus. The lamb's head was covered by a cloth.
"Two thousand years ago this day, Jesus died on the cross for our sins," Pastor Mentz told the congregation which was attending the Good Friday service. "Today we are transported back in time to that day."
Over in St. Hugh's Catholic Church, the congregation was also making an effort to return to the time of Jesus. Congregation members waited in line to kneel before and kiss a crucifix, a representation of Jesus nailed to a cross. Nearby was a tabernacle, a box which ordinarily held the sacred Communion bread, considered by Roman Catholics to be the body of Christ. The doors were open to show that the bread was gone; it had been taken away like Jesus after his arrest.
The Rev. Paul Herbert wished to make clear in his sermon the shock which onlookers must have felt as they witnessed Jesus' crucifixion. He told the story of a small boy who attended a musical describing the last days of Jesus. As the boy saw Jesus being nailed to the cross, he cried in horror, "They killed my friend!"
The service ended at St. Hugh's, and the priest and congregation walked out silently without singing the usual final hymn. Now Christians throughout Greenbelt would await the final act of the story.
The room lay in darkness. Suddenly a single light flared forth and touched the Paschal (Easter) candle. From there, the light was passed from person to person until everyone present held a lit candle, and the Great Hall of St. John's Episcopal Church in Beltsville glowed with light.
"Ezekiel cried, ‘Them dry bones!'" sang the children, then collapsed onto the floor as though they were the valley of dry bones which Ezekiel encountered in the Bible. Standing in the midst of them, the reader recited, "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live." Two children ran around breathing life on the others.
The congregation had come to attend the Easter Vigil, an ancient evening service heralding the arrival of Easter, the day on which Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. The congregation members entered the church singing, "He is risen!" and as they did so they touched the warm water in a bowl beside the doorway. The water was meant to remind them of their newly renewed vows of baptism, the Christian rite of initiation.
The church was bright with Easter color: white daisies, carnations, lilies, and a white altar cloth. The Rev. Nancy J. Noall praised the children for their unusual dramatic performance, saying, "Why do all the kids know the Christmas story? Because they act it out."
Now that the children had used drama to learn Bible lessons, Mrs. Noall used stories to convey what Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead was like. She told of a news story about a cat who ran repeatedly in and out of a burning building in order to save her kittens. "That's really what Jesus did," the priest said. "It was costly and it hurt him. But that's not the end. The end is new life."
Small moments serve to remind us of Jesus' resurrection, she said. "It may be a beautiful spring day." Then she looked around at the congregation, whose members were heavily clothed against the cold, and she quipped, "When that day comes, you'll know."
"I come to the garden while the dew is still on the roses," sang the people who gathered the following morning for Greenbelt's Easter Sunrise Service. The "garden" was nowhere in sight, since the service had been moved from Greenbelt Lake to Greenbelt Baptist Church for fear of rain.
The rain never came, though, and many people went first to "Buddy" Attick Lake Park. "What's going on here?" Rev. Shotts asked another member of Mowatt Memorial Church. When told that the service might have been moved, the pastor smiled and said, "Nobody told me."
At Greenbelt Baptist Church, the Rev. Sidney Conger of Berwyn Presbyterian Church in College Park was leading the people in song with his guitar. Turning to a lengthy hymn in The Baptist Hymnal, Mr. Conger said, "Oh, my goodness. Presbyterians only have four verses."
The interdenominational service allowed Greenbelters of various Christian traditions to unite in celebration of what Mr. Hamlin called "the beginning of Creation Savings Time." The confusion over location added levity to the already eclectic service.
The Rev. Drew Shofner inspired more laughter when he arrived a half hour late to his own church. When asked whether he wished to address the people, he said, "No, actually I'd like to melt into my seat."
He came forward, though, and said, "I was thinking last night that it's a good thing that the Resurrection doesn't depend on human effort – little did I know."
All of the local church representatives who were present contributed something to the service in a variety of fashions. Pastor Shotts quietly read from the Gospel According to Matthew, while Mr. Hamlin led the congregation in a rousing recitation of Psalm 150 and imitated the musical instruments mentioned in that hymn. Dee Downs from the Catholic Community of Greenbelt read a Greenbelt News Review article on Gary White, Jr., an Eleanor Roosevelt High School student who had recently been killed, while Mr. Congor drew his inspiration from The Washington Post's sports page.
Mr. Congor ended the service by praying, "May we seek to be in our own ways, our own traditions, our own cultures, witnesses to God."
BUBBLES AND PUPPETS
Greenbelt Christians then parted in order to worship in their own traditions. Each church found its own way of celebrating the day. In Adelphi, for example, the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church held an Intergenerational Celebration of Spring, while Berwyn Presbyterian Church held a traditional Easter Day service.
At Berwyn, the main reading was from the New Testament. At Paint Branch, the reading consisted of intertwined passages from the New Testament, the Old Testament, and the Greek myth of Persephone, and the readers ended by saying, "Joyous Passover! Happy Easter! Spring is here!"
At Berwyn, the choir sang hymns praising the Holy Spirit of God. At Paint Branch, the congregation blew bubbles to symbolize "prayer or good will or a spirit," in the words of the Rev. Rod Thompson.
At Berwyn, the congregation sang, "Jesus Christ is ris'n today." At Paint Branch, the congregation sang, "Lo, the Earth awakes again," to the same tune.
At Berwyn, the children came forward to greet Mr. Conger's angel puppet, who lamented, "Coming to church is sometimes hard – sermons and all that, you know." At Paint Branch, the children came forward to present flowers that were later distributed in a "flower communion."
At Berwyn, Mr. Conger ended the service with an adaptation of St. Paul's prayer: "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with you all evermore." At Paint Branch, Religious Education Director Abby Crowley recognized the holiday's secular traditions by saying, "Like jelly beans and chocolate rabbits, may each season's special surprises bring you joy."
In one respect, though, the churches were identical. As Mr. Thompson looked out upon the congregation members desperately searching for empty seats on this popular day of worship, he laughed and remarked, "Who says we're not like those other churches on Easter morning?"
By sunset, Easter's grey morning clouds had dispersed. The predicted rain had not fallen, and the sun shown brightly on the spring flowers. Over at Greenbelt Baptist Church, the choir was ending Greenbelt's Easter celebration the way the celebration had started one week before: through song.
"This day is a picture of life in Christ," Pastor Shofner told those present. "It started out miserably, didn't it? And now look at it – it's beautiful."
As night arrived, Greenbelters were singing yet another version of "Jesus Christ is ris'n today." It had been a long week, one in which Greenbelt's Christians conveyed the meaning of their most holy festival through music, art, prayer, sermons, drama – and the weather.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson