On easter, rites vary, but message is same
For leaders of Hawai'i's Christian churches, this week's observations of Good Friday and Easter Sunday mark the most theologically important time of the year and, traditionally, their best opportunity to spread their faith's particular take on the word beyond the ranks of regular churchgoers.
"This is the big one," said Episcopalian Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick, who will oversee Easter Mass at Saint Andrew's Cathedral today. "We usually see more people at Christmas and Easter, but Easter is the one that really tells the story of God's love for us."
To be sure, religious leaders of various Christian denominations expect, even plan for, their pews to be filled with infrequent or inactive followers as well as many faith-curious.
And as Fitzpatrick noted, the significance of Holy Week, and of Easter in particular, is simple enough and powerful enough to be appreciated by ardent believers and casual investigators alike.
While rites may vary from religion to religion, the various Christian sermons delivered today will all focus on the shared belief that Jesus Christ died to atone for the sins of mankind, and that his resurrection three days later allows for the redemption and salvation of his followers.
Individual churches will share this foundational message in a variety of settings — from tiny rural parishes to rented arenas — and through myriad presentation styles.
New Hope Christian Fellowship, which includes a half-dozen campuses islandwide, will conclude its three-day "New Beginnings" event today with a pair of services led by Senior Pastor Wayne Cordeiro at the Neal Blaisdell Center.
Last year, the combined services attracted an estimated 20,000 people, including many nonmembers. The church averages about 12,000 attendees at its regular weekend services.
Sam Kapu, the pastor at New Hope's Mānoa chapter, said this week's celebration is designed to be "seeker-friendly," with translation in sign, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean; musical performances; live and video testimonials; and an appearance by former "American Idol" contestant Mandisa.
Kapu said the large, celebratory nature of the event makes it easier for newcomers to "mix in" with the rest of the crowd, providing a gentle way for people to learn more about the church and its teachings.
The church is asking visitors to bring canned goods to donate to the Hawaii Foodbank.
TIME TO REFLECT
Grace Bible Church, which holds services at Kāhala Elementary School, has designed its Easter festivities to encourage fellowship and family time.
In addition to services at 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., which will include music and video presentations, the celebration will feature breakfast and lunch, an Easter egg hunt for kids, an inflatable jumper, crafts and cookie making.
"It's a time to enjoy one another and to pause from the regular Sunday routine to reflect on what this special day means," said Gregg Brenes, who has been preparing his first Easter sermon as pastor of the church. "It's a celebration of the climactic and pivotal moments in which (Christ) died for our sins and was resurrected. It's the cornerstone of the Christian faith."
Brenes said he wants to make sure that his message today makes clear to those who may not have had a religious upbringing the significance of Easter to the Christian faith and applicability of its lessons to daily life.
"The examples and illustrations may change, but the basic message is the same," Brenes said. "In death, Jesus paid for our sins and God raised Jesus from the dead, offering hope and new beginnings for all of us. After a year of hard times, this kind of message of hope is especially relevant. People who are looking for hope may be more inclined to consider the message of the gospel."
Brenes expects to wake around 5 a.m. today to prepare himself to deliver that message. Members of his church have already devoted much time in preparing the elementary school to receive an estimated 500 visitors.
Brother Greg O'Donnell, former president of Damien Memorial School, plans to spend a low-key Easter at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Hau'ula.
As O'Donnell noted, the church's Holy Week observances will be nearly identical to events at other Catholic churches around the world, a result of greater regulation over the past couple of decades. That's a marked departure from the services of his youth, when local parishes had greater flexibility and Holy Week events were celebrated with a variety of regional customs.
O'Donnell recalled the days in his native Chicago when he and others attended Thursday Mass, observed the procession of the cross, then spent the rest of the day visiting other churches.
"You'd get in your car or get on your bicycle and visit one church after another," he said. "The more you visited, the better off you were."
These days, O'Donnell said, Catholic parishes adhere to "a very structured and rigorous" observance of the various events that comprise the Easter Triduum.
"The message is highly scripted," O'Donnell said. "What you say is your business, but it's based on the epistle or the gospel. The homily must be based on Scripture readings.
"It's kind of like the NCAA (basketball tournament) being either 64 or 96 teams," O'Donnell said. "I can live with either one, but I prefer it being highly scripted because there is less degree of going off into private interpretation.
"At St. Joachim, they'll sing a capella because there is no organ, but the service will be the same as it would be in a cathedral."
For Fitzpatrick, the Episcopalian bishop, the message of Easter is entwined with his own religious evolution .
Fitzpatrick joined the church while in college. He was baptized in March and confirmed in April.
"My understanding of what it meant to be a modern person and a faithful Christian came at Easter," he said.
'ALL ABOUT CHRIST'
As with the rest of the church's Holy Week observances, today's Easter services will stick to traditional lines — "The cathedral doesn't do videos," Fitzpatrick said, laughing — with Fitzpatrick delivering a message of divine love and inclusiveness.
"The liturgy is fairly traditional but how we're different is that we worship with a liberal understanding of the gospel," he said.
That liberal understanding, which allows for the inclusion of female priests and acceptance of gay and lesbian worshippers, allows the church to be supportive of anyone who wishes to draw closer to God, Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said the value of the church's traditional, low-tech approach is that it preserves a sense of mystery about man's connection with God, a sense that God's love "is bigger than all of us."
Thus, even though today's sermon will carry the church's most important message to its largest audience, Fitzpatrick said composing it was a peaceful, affirmative experience.
"There's no anxiety because it's not about me," he said. "It's all about Christ."