Every year, an hour before the clock strikes Easter Sunday, members of Missouri United Methodist Church gather in the sanctuary on Ninth Street.
The ceremony begins with scriptural accounts of Jesus Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion. The mood is somber: the room is candle-lit, there are no flowers and black cloth covers the walls and altar brass. As each reading is concluded, a series of candles are snuffed out and a hymn is sung.
Finally, with the sanctuary shrouded in darkness, the members walk outside and slowly circle the church building three times, symbolizing each day Christ lay in the tomb.
By the time the group returns to the church’s front door, Saturday night has slipped into Easter Sunday. Pastor Jim Bryan pounds on the door.
“Who do you seek?” comes a voice from inside.
“We seek Jesus of Nazareth,” says Pastor Bryan.
“He is not here, he is risen,” is the reply.
The church’s doors are then thrown open to a transformed sanctuary. Easter lilies adorn the chancel, and the black banners have been changed to white. As the group enters the brightly lighted room, the organist plays the fanfare to “Christ the Lord has Risen Today.”
“It’s an unusual way of celebrating Easter,” Bryan admits. But it is an appropriate way to honor a day that Christians around the world consider the most majestic, beautiful and joyous of holidays. Or, as John Baker, senior pastor of First Baptist Church calls it, “the big kahuna for annual Christian worship.”
The resurrection is the center piece of the Christian faith. As Paul writes in First Corinthians 15:17 “And if Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to it and you are still in your old state of sin.” (Revised English Version)
Easter is the culmination of Holy Week, the last week of Lent, which Christians set aside to contemplate Christ’s final days, said Fred Thayer, pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church.
“The Easter service takes place in a context of the church celebrating a movement out of error into truth; out of sin into righteousness; out of death into life,” Thayer said.
Many Christians begin their Easter celebration with Maundy Thursday, which marks Christ’s last meal before his arrest. Members of Calvary Episcopal Church usually share a simple meal together Thursday evening and then hold a vigil symbolically commemorating the night Jesus spent praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Today, Columbia’s churches will be more crowded than usual. Church attendance nearly doubles on Easter Sunday. However, because Easter falls during spring break this year, many congregants associated with MU and Columbia public schools will be out of town.
“There are people who come to church every Sunday, some that come once or twice a month, others come once a quarter, then you have some that only come on Christmas and Easter,” Thayer said. “All these groups come on Easter.”
Baker said he believes people who don’t normally attend services come to church on Easter because they feel a deep need to worship. He uses the opportunity to make them feel especially welcome.
“I will not say anything to make infrequent attendees feel highlighted,” Baker said. “I don’t want people to feel guilty on Easter. We want them to feel good they have come.”
Not every church has an annual ritual like United Methodist’s, but local pastors look for ways to make the message in Christ’s death and resurrection fresh and relevant. Some take extra measures to make the day special. Choirs perform and musical instruments make special appearances. There are fellowship breakfasts and sunrise services. First Baptist Church will have an 8 a.m. service on its front patio, where about 20 youths will lead the service. Attendees will be asked to consider a difficulty in their life, then pick up a flower and place it into a wire mesh cross.
Pastors work hard to make their Easter sermons especially meaningful and relevant.
“Easter Sunday is one of the toughest sermons to preach,” said David Benson, pastor of Campus Lutheran, which will conduct a traditional Easter service today. “The members of the church know what you are going to say. It’s challenging to make it fresh — to come at it from a different angle.”
Anticipation runs high as the day approaches. And though Easter is a day they look forward to all year long, ministers can’t always find the time to celebrate the way their congregations do. Bensons said it is difficult “to personally cherish Easter in the midst of the Easter madness.”
Baker says he prays a lot in the days leading up to Easter, and he approaches his sermon with a mixture of anxiety and excitement.
“I find it to be the most exciting but the most daunting Sunday of the year because it is a very humbling task to put into words something as profound as the resurrection,” he said.
Raymond Massey II, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian, is a bit less daunted by the occasion: “The important thing,” he said, “is to have fun because Easter is a great joy.”
This year, some local churches will tap the popular culture to deliver the Easter message. Dave Cover, pastor of The Crossing, will borrow a famous line from the movie “The Sixth Sense” for the day’s theme: “I see dead people.”
“The sermon will focus on how only the resurrection can answer the deepest needs of the human condition as well as the deepest needs of our heart,” he said.
Country music will be a source of inspiration today for Gary DeWitt, pastor of Community United Methodist Church and a former musician. Dewitt’s message to his congregation will be colored by the redemptive message in the song “Broken Road,” by Rascal Flatts.
“We’ve all taken wrong turns, experiences that we regret,” DeWitt said. “God would use all those events and experiences to still bring us to God. That’s what Easter is all about.”
At the Interfaith Center, a church that accepts all faiths, the focus will be on the inner spiritual experience of Easter, said the Rev. Marci DeVeir. In her sermon, DeVeir will remind listeners that “all the things Christ has done, we are to do.”
DeVeir hopes people will understand that Easter is not just about Christ’s pain, but the triumph over suffering. “Life is a struggle,” she said, “but we have those high points, and we rise above that physical pain.”
Photos from the December tsunami in south Asia gave Pastor Herschel Martindale of Valley View Community Church his inspiration this Easter Sunday. In his sermon, “Hope in the God who Cares,” Martindale will help his congregation cope with a vexing eternal question: why a loving God allows tragedy to occur.
“I wanted to touch on something that people could identify with,” Martindale said. “Just because tragedies happen in our world, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care.”
Meanwhile, other congregations will not use as much fanfare in their services. Some churches approach Easter as they do every other Sunday and remind their members that Christ’s resurrection should be celebrated throughout the year.
“Every Sunday is Easter Sunday in our tradition because our belief is that the resurrection gives meaning to what we do for the rest of year,” said Richard Ramsey, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church.