By Jason A. Smith
As a number of local houses of worship continue to celebrate Holy Week, church leaders are noting the importance of remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Several Maundy Thursday services were held in Clayton and Henry counties this week, to mark the beginning of the three-day period leading to Easter.
According to Robert Harrell, pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in McDonough, Maundy Thursday is a "somber time" for Christians to reflect on Christ's suffering. The church typically incorporates hymns and Holy Communion into the annual service.
Harrell explained that some types of churches regularly mark Maundy Thursday during Holy Week, while others do not.
"Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopalian churches commemorate Maundy Thursday more," he explained. "It's more rare in other religious traditions."
Harrell said Maundy Thursday is a vital component in people's understanding of Jesus' sacrifice.
"It allows us to walk with Christ in the last hours of His life, and to participate in His last meal as if we were there with Him," the pastor said. "It also gives us a chance to be thankful that the meal was left for us, as a means of grace."
Vickie Pace, president of the church council at St. Luke Lutheran, cited two more reasons for the importance of Maundy Thursday.
"It allows the individual to gain a greater understanding of God and the Holy Spirit," she explained. "It's also a worship service. We're sending worship to God, and gaining an understanding of our purpose on earth, and what it means to be a Christian."
St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Morrow also participated in Maundy Thursday services, as church leaders washed the feet of members in attendance. According to Communications chairperson Victoria Buntin, the service is meant to signify when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, hours before His betrayal and arrest.
"He gave them an example to follow," explained Buntin, adding that the service promotes an attitude of servanthood among Christians. "It reminds us that we are not better than one another."
Also recognizing the final hours of Christ's life as part of Holy Week was the congregation at Berea Christian Church in Hampton. One of the ways the church is doing this, is through a production titled "Via Dolorosa," which is Latin for "the way of sorrows."
The play depicts the last hours of Jesus' life. Included among the featured scenes are Jesus' prayer to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostle Peter's denial of Christ, Jesus' death and resurrection.
David Fulton, preaching minister at Berea, said the production brings to life a subject that, for many, is far removed from their daily lives.
"Most Americans know the story," he explained. "It's one thing to say Jesus gave His life on the Cross, but to see it makes it become more real, and helps people to feel the emotions that might have been present [at the time]."
Fulton said about 80 percent of the church membership at Berea are involved in the play, which is currently in its second year of production. One of those members, 45-year-old Jeff Jones, of Hampton, portrays Christ in the trial scene. Jones, who also played Jesus in last year's production, said the opportunity is both a "privilege" and an eye-opening experience.
"To have people screaming, 'Crucify Him!' hit home," Jones said. "It's a little overwhelming."
Tim Timmons, 54, of Jonesboro, plays one of the people to whom Peter denied Christ, and said the play makes the biblical account of Christ's last days "come alive."
"It's an easy way to reach people who are not versed in the Bible," Timmons said. "It's an outreach to people who are on the fringes, who know of the Bible, but don't know the details of Christ's suffering."
Another significant event during Holy Week, Harrell said, occurs on Good Friday, which symbolizes Jesus' death. The pastor explained that the reason the occasion is called "good," is because of the "redemptive" nature of Christ's sacrifice. In addition, he said Good Friday and Easter Sunday go hand-in-hand.
"Good Friday doesn't make sense without Easter Sunday," Harrell explained. "That's when the Resurrection happened, and offered redemption for all people."
Holy Week will culminate with Easter celebrations at a number of local churches, many of which will include sunrise services and egg hunts. Pastor Harrell, however, reiterated that those celebrations take on a deeper meaning in the context of the week's other services.
"I think many of us want to skip the hard parts and go straight to Easter," the pastor explained. "But you can't get there without Christ being betrayed by one of His followers, and denied by a person who said he would follow Him to the end."
David Fulton agreed, saying he hopes Holy Week will serve as a time for Christians and non-Christians to "refocus" on the true meaning of Easter.
"If you did a word association with 'Easter,' most people would respond with 'bunny or 'egg,'" Fulton said. "Few would respond with 'empty tomb.'"