Easter Celebrations Grow at Adventist Institutions & Churches
by Monte Sahlin
By AT News Team, April 21, 2014
For Southern Adventist University near Chattanooga, Tennessee, it was the 19th year for the SonRise Pageant last weekend. More than 6,000 tickets had been given out ahead of time and actual attendance probably topped 10,000. A cast of 550 students and church members were in full costume and the weather cooperated perfectly this year.
From 8:30 a.m. Sabbath (April 19) until late afternoon groups left every half hour to walk through the six scenes portrayed in the event; the triumphal entry, the last supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Pilate's judgment hall, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Six different actors played Jesus in the six scenes and some of the other roles were also repeated in different scenes with different actors. In addition to the cast there were hundreds of support staff who set up and tore down the outside scenes, helped with costumes, prepared a meal for the cast, delivered snacks, served refreshments to visitors, managed the extensive technology and communication gear, took tickets and oversaw parking.
At Andrews University in southern Michigan near South Bend, Indiana, the Easter event took the form of a musical production, “The Passion According to Matthew” on Friday and Saturday evenings (April 18-19) in the Howard Performing Arts Center. It was also free and open to the public. The play was set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
“The story portrayed is essentially verbatim from the Bible,” explained Charles Reid, associate professor of voice and producer of the performance. He also stated that intermingled with the story are lots of meditation points; opportunities to dwell on the story in a personal way before moving on. “The idea of ‘stations of the cross’ is common in many other denominations, where participants take time to really think about different parts of the story of Christ’s death and resurrection and what they mean,” said Reid. “This is what the Andrews University annual Passion Play has strived to create as well. You get not only into what happens to Jesus, but how everything relates to the other characters in the story. It’s truly eye-opening.”
The University Singers had a key role in the storytelling alongside the evangelist or narrator played this year by David Ortiz, sophomore music major. Deneile Clark, a seminary student at AU, played the role of Jesus. Reid and his cast paid special attention to helping the audience connect with the characters and the deeply meaningful story. “We’re taking a lot of care to make the text into modern English so the audience doesn’t have to translate from King James English,” he said. “Instead of looking at the story of something that happened over 2,000 years ago, we’re looking at a story that’s relevant for now and we want everyone to look at it like it’s their story.”
Students have provided all of the personnel, technical know-how and other details necessary to the production. A joint venture between the vocal/choral and symphonic areas, “The Passion” is a major production of the music department. Stephen Zork, associate professor of music, conducted the choir, while Claudio Gonzalez, associate professor of music, managed the instrumental elements.
Reid was inspired by “The Passion” early in his career when he was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. Director Jonathan Miller chose to perform this piece in a unique way. “Out of the hundreds of performances I’ve done over the years, that set of performances remains an emotional high point,” Reid recalled. “I’ve never seen audiences so impacted in random ways. People realized things they weren’t used to noticing and were open to the story in a fresh way. That’s what I hope to accomplish here as well.”
“When you look at this story," Reid continued, "you see Jesus was very emotional. He actually got angry, afraid, frustrated, even angsty. Not things we usually associate with Jesus. So a piece like this, done how we’re doing it in a more contemporary setting, can have a strong impact on anyone, Christian or not.”
In New York City, The Risen was produced by the Greater New York Conference youth ministries department and went through four showings. Audiences could experience the outdoor passion play either morning or afternoon on both Sabbath and Sunday (April 19-20).
Presentations in both English and Spanish were included in the ninth annual Resurrection Pageant at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. There were eight rotations throughout the day on Sabbath (April 19), starting at 9 a.m. Two of the eight were presented in Spanish. More than 5,000 people attended, and 450 volunteers made up the cast and crew.
In southern California the drama ministry of the Redlands Seventh-day Adventist Church presented a play entitled "The Soldier" on Thursday and Friday nights (April 17-18), reported the Redlands Daily Facts. The play "is the story of Claudius who, as a boy, had built walls around his heart. He had no choice but to follow his father's footsteps into the life of a Roman soldier. His father had punished any sign of weakness, so Claudius learned to suppress anything that could be interpreted as such. He had anger and resentment simmering just below the surface … until he met Jesus."
The Kelso-Longview Community Adventist Church in Kelso, Washington, continued its tradition of more than a dozen years, producing an Easter musical with a cast and choir of more than 100. Participants drove in from across Oregon as well as Washington. Rollyn Betts, who portrayed Jesus in the play, told The Daily News , "A lot of kids come up to Jesus afterwards. And they'll hug you and they don't want to let go of you. There's some sort of connection there." He told the reporter that it affects even the unchurched in the audience. "Journey to the Cross" was presented six times this year, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, April 11-13 and 18-20.
Easter celebrations are beginning among Adventists in the southern hemisphere as well as in North America and Europe. In Kenya more than 200 prisoners, including some on death row, sought forgiveness for their crimes through song and dance, and were then baptized by a team from the local Seventh-day Adventist Church. Pastor Pierre Mulumba led out in the event at Naivasha Maximum Security Prison as reported by The Standard. The baptismal candidates had been attending Adventist worship services inside the prison for some time.
In the Philippines the Adventist Blue Ambassadors Choral joined singing groups from six other religions in a televised national event organized by the United Nations and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The Aawitang Handog Concert at the Skydome in North EDSA on Sunday was a benefit to raise funds for families devastated by Typhoon Yolanda.
In hundreds of other events, Adventists remembered the death and resurrection of Jesus and invited large numbers of friends and neighbors to join them. Many Adventists still remember a time when the faith was uncomfortably silent on Easter or engaged in negative comments about the "pagan origins" of the event that almost all other Christians celebrate as central to their relationship with Christ. "Clearly, this is changing," a retired pastor told Adventist Today.