Walking together on the road to Easter

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

It’s a familiar story, especially for those who have grown up in the church.  So how do we retell the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection year after year in ways that open us up, once again, to the pain, the beauty, and the wonder of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death?

dove scripture picture
Members at Souderton congregation contributed artwork made of scripture. Photo provided.

The season of Lent, celebrated for the forty days leading up to Easter, marks Christ’s journey to Jerusalem.  It invites those who follow Jesus to walk with him by remembering his life, practicing disciplines of fasting and sacrifice, and engaging in deeper commitment to their brothers and sisters in the church.

Souderton (Pa.) congregation began Lent by diving deeper into Mennonite Church USA’s “Year of the Bible” with an art project.  Members of the congregation were invited to choose a word or phrase from scripture on which they wanted to meditate and to write it over and over on a panel using colors to create images.  These panels became banners that hung in the front of their sanctuary during the Lenten season.

Souderton wasn’t the only congregation to celebrate the imaginative Spirit.  Swamp (Quakertown, Pa.) spent Lent exploring God as creator, “littering” the steps of their platform with items created by members of the congregation, symbols of God’s unique creative work in them.  Their children memorized Psalm 139, which they recited on Palm Sunday after leading the entire congregation in a procession, joyfully waving palm branches.

Plains maps
Plains congregation used maps to illustrate their prayers for their region, country, and world. Photo by Dawn Ranck.

Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week and was the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adoration of the crowds.  The week soon turned more somber, however, as Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples, washing their feet, and predicting his betrayal.  These events are remembered on Maundy Thursday.

Conference congregations reenacted Christ’s humility with their own experiences of footwashing.  Traditionally, Mennonites have practiced footwashing in groups divided by gender.  At Perkiomenville (Pa.) congregation this year, footwashing was one of several stations that members could visit, which, for the first time, allowed married couples or family members to wash each other’s feet.

Good Friday vigil
Franconia Conference members joined Christians from all over the Philadelphia region for a Good Friday vigil outside a gun shop. Photo by Jim McIntire.

In addition to footwashing, Plains (Hatfield, Pa.) congregation acted out Christ’s care and humility by setting up prayer stations with large maps of the world, the country, and their region.  Members could pray for and mark areas on each map with a dot or a heart.

Compassion for the community continued to spread into Good Friday, the day when followers of Jesus remember his death on the cross.  Members of churches all over the Philadelphia region gathered outside a gun shop in the city for a Good Friday vigil.  As these believers stood against violence in the city, others gathered in Good Friday services to remember that Jesus’ death made peace and reconciliation with God, and one another, possible.

Salford power outage
Salford congregation spent part of its Good Friday service in the dark, thanks to an unexpected power outage. Photo by Emily Ralph

Just when Good Friday seemed like it couldn’t get any darker, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.) congregation’s evening service was suddenly interrupted by a power outage.  For just a few, brief moments the congregation was surprised by the darkness and powerless to do anything but sit in the shadow of the cross.

There was a hush in Franconia Conference on the Saturday of Holy Week, as though the Church was holding its breath, waiting for the joy they knew was coming on Easter morning.

And the joy did come—in colors and flowers, in song and story, in food and hope and promise.  Crosses were draped in white and lilies and hyacinths and forsythia decorated sanctuaries.  Congregations met as the sun rose, around breakfast tables, and in their morning services to celebrate an empty tomb.

Philadelphia Praise Center viewed a video in which church members took to the city streets to ask people about the significance of Easter.  Blooming Glen (Pa.) congregation acted out the resurrection story in a chilly sunrise service and a member at Deep Run East (Perkasie, Pa.) built a custom tomb to display on Easter morning. In Vermont, members of Bethany congregation participated in an ecumenical sunrise service on the side of Mt Killington and then, after brunch, were led in worship by a new generation of storytellers–their children.

It’s a familiar story, and yet it’s born fresh each year as we once again walk with Jesus through Lent, Holy Week, and the Easter season.  In this story, we recognize what theologian H.S. Bender once wrote: we live on the resurrection side of the cross.  May we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by living our lives as a resurrected people.

He is risen: He is risen indeed!

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