Spoiler alert coming: Ask a Methodist to tell you how Christians honor and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, and you’ll hear pretty much the same thing from all of us. Traditions like waving palm fronds on Palm Sunday and having sunrise services on Easter morning are so familiar to so many of us, it may have never entered our minds that there are Christians whose services and rituals are completely unlike our own. And guess what? They’re just as traditional—and important—as ours.
Train Station Traditions
Stations of the Crosswhere worshippers walk to fourteen “stops,” prayerfully reflecting upon Jesus’ suffering and death, is a tradition in countless churches; how many churches, however, set up the walk in a train station . . . the shelter where many of the city’s homeless spend their nights?
“We are a ministry with and not for people experiencing homelessness,” says Violet Cucciniello Little, pastor of The Welcome Church, which meets on the streets of Philadelphia. “The stations are led by members of the Welcome Church community and are also written by the folks from our congregation, many of whom have slept in that train station. One person read a station from the spot where she had once been assaulted.”
The church members also altered the traditional fourteen-station set up. “When it was written, the community decided that since God is always with us, we could not end on the 14th Station—with Jesus in the tomb—and so they added a fifteenth,” Little explains. “It takes us to the ‘Hub of Hope’ in the train station—a program run by the city and Project HOME, offering assistance to people experiencing homelessness.”
Jill Grosvenor is a twenty-six year member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She describes a traditional Great Holy Friday (Good Friday) service, one of many that make up an Orthodox Easter, or “Paschal,” a derivative of the Hebrew word for “Passover.” “A large, wooden icon of Jesus on the cross is at the front of the church,” she says. “They take Jesus off the cross, and wrap him in a shroud. Then, the priest brings it out from behind the altar.” Grosvenor vividly remembers the first Great Holy Friday service she attended.
“I was standing in the pew and in my peripheral vision, I saw the priest and the altar boys . . . and they were on a dirt road wearing clothes from the time of Christ!” Grosvenor says, then pauses and takes a deep breath to gather herself. “It was just for a few seconds, and then they ‘came back’ to the present. I thought, ‘Oh—this is real.’ It was so moving; I get chills just telling you about it. It really affected me.”
Although she knows of no one who has had a transformational experience to that degree, she says everyone feels a change take place. “You really feel the presence of the angels and of Christ,” she says. “The atmosphere is very different, very touching.”
The Art of Tradition
John Jay Alvaro, senior pastor at Spring Creek Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, created an Easter sermon graphic that is as non-traditional as you can get. Alvaro has a fine arts/architecture background in addition to his Duke Divinity School training so instead of “traditional” artwork incorporating a crown of thorns, a cross or maybe a sunrise, Alvaro crafted a graphic of what could not be seen.
“I used the idea of negative space as the guiding metaphor,” Alvaro says. “We focused on the tomb as a void seeking meaning and interpretation. The shimmering water colored absence captured the entire sermon in one image for me.”
Alvaro agrees with those who believe that visuals often make it easier to remember words or ideas. So he uses art to both write and preach his weekly sermons, making doodles and sketching out visual ideas throughout the week and from the pulpit as his only sermon notes. His graphics are also projected during the service and then they’re added to the church’s website each week accompanied by an audio recording of the sermon. The congregation expects and appreciates Alvaro’s non-traditional approach so much that it’s become . . . well, traditional.
“Without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Perhaps that line, delivered by Tevye, a Jewish character in Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, sums up the importance of our religious and spiritual traditions no matter how similar or dissimilar they may be. They give all of us solid ground to stand upon.
Easter traditions are shaped not only by denomination and beliefs but also by cultural backgrounds and regional histories. To learn more about “non-traditional” traditions, search the Internet using the following terms:
- El Santuario de Chimayo: 50,000 people make a Holy Week pilgrimage on foot to this New Mexico Shrine.
- Red Rocks Sunrise Service: At least 14,000 people are expected to attend this annual Easter sunrise service in Red Rocks Amphitheatre, ten miles out of Denver, Colorado.
- Moravian Sunrise Service: This service in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is considered by many to be the largest sunrise service in the country.
- The Inferno of Dante Reading: Every Maundy Thursday, poets, actors and scholars read selections from the Inferno at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
- Mardi Gras United Methodist: You may be surprised to discover that many United Methodist churches celebrate Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday and Shrove Tuesday, which falls on the day before Ash Wednesday. Potlucks, parades and jazz concerts are common activities.
What are some of the Passion Week traditions in your church? Let us know!
Judy Bumgarner is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee. She also works at Brentwood United Methodist Church in the church’s Caring Ministry.