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Gwinnett churches to celebrate Holy Week with services

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The celebration of Holy Week will begin for Snellville United Methodist Church with processionals recreating Jesus' joyous entry into Jerusalem, as recounted by the Gospels, just days before his crucifixion.

Members of the congregation have been invited to participate in today's Palm Sunday celebration by wearing native dress and carrying palm leaves, an homage to the crowds that welcomed Jesus into the city, calling him their king.

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, or Passion Sunday, is the beginning of Holy Week, which commemorates the events leading up to the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ.

"The beginning of Holy Week is a time of reflection so we can prepare ourselves for the sacrifice God gave us through the son, Jesus Christ," said Christy Williams, director of communications for Snellville UMC. "All the services leading up that allow us to reflect on that."

The congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lilburn was set to wave palms brought in from Africa during a processional into the church sanctuary for worship today, which was to consist of a congregational reading of Luke 23 that recounts Jesus' trial before Pilate, his sentencing at the urging of the crowd gathered there, the crucifixion on Mount Calvary and his death.

Many Gwinnett churches will join Snellville UMC and Trinity Lutheran in celebrating Palm Sunday today as well as subsequent observances associated with Holy Week.

"It's the most important week in the Christian year," said Richard Hunter, pastor of Snellville UMC. "In one week, we really cover the main reasons that Jesus Christ came to earth, and that was to demonstrate God's love, call disciples and deal with the problem of sin and evil."

Following today's Palm Sunday service, Trinity Lutheran will hold a service of healing Wednesday before commemorating Maundy Thursday with a Seder meal of traditional Passover foods complemented by traditional hymns and prayers. Participants will then process into the church sanctuary for Eucharist and the stripping of the altar -- the removal of the cloths, vases of flowers and other ornaments so that nothing remains.

"We strip the altar as Jesus was stripped after his arrest, preparing the altar for the barrenness of Good Friday," said Dale Sillik, pastor of the Lilburn church.

St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Lawrenceville will mark Holy Thursday with a foot washing ceremony.

Participants may have their own feet washed and wash the feet of others.

"It can be quite moving to watch a 6-year-old kindergarten student washing the foot of an 80-year-old grandmother who comes along behind him," said the Very Rev. Albert Dowdy, pastor of the Lawrenceville church. "The experience over the years has really been a beautiful experience of the diversity and the unity we experience of the body of Christ."

Good Friday follows Maundy Thursday and is the day that marks Jesus' crucifixion and death. This year, Snellville United Methodist elected to add a second, more traditional service to complement its evening Good Friday service that focuses on the last seven words Jesus spoke. The traditional, Tenebrae service will serve to recreate the emotional aspects of the passion story. Tenebrae is Latin for "shadows."

"I think in the business of our lives, the fact that we can offer so many different services and so many different ways to connect with God as well as remembering the sacrifice God showed us through his son, I think that is beneficial not just to the congregation but to individuals in this crazy time," Williams said, "especially with all the economic uncertainty. It helps them to remember those things that are important."

Trinity Lutheran's Tenebrae service is known as a service of shadows and consists of Scripture readings and the singing of appropriate hymns.

"With each hymn, the church grows darker and darker," Sillik said, "until the church is left in total darkness."

At this point, an old, wooden cross will be laid at the altar and a large Bible will be slammed shut to signify the sealing of the tomb where Jesus' body was laid. A single, lit candle will serve as a sign of hope for the resurrection to come and will be taken out of the sanctuary and brought back in before the congregation will depart in absolute silence.

"A service of shadows is to help us be with Christ on Calvary," Sillik said, "hearing the Scripture of his last hours and of his death and burial, bringing our hearts together in music and in prayer and with the growing darkness, our own sense of the growing darkness both in the sky on Good Friday but also the growing darkness of the sinfulness that led to Jesus' death.

"It is important for us to walk with Christ not just to be him in the parade of Palm Sunday or the joyous resurrection of Easter Sunday," Sillik continued, "but to walk the path that led to the resurrection and to know the whole story and hopefully to experience the story in worship so it has new life."

Members of Trinity Lutheran Church will then begin a continuous prayer vigil at 9 p.m. Friday that will last until 6 a.m. Easter Sunday, when it joins churches throughout the world in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Hunter, pastor at Snellville UMC, said Holy Week served to give Christians a better understanding of this miraculous event.

"You can't understand Easter if you don't understand the purpose of the cross or the suffering or even the sorrow and agony that Christ went through, that he was fully human and fully divine," he said. "That's why we can relate to him and that's why his teachings truly speak to us because he could understand the things we go through."

"Hopefully for us, (the celebration of Holy Week) connects us to the greater church," Sillik said. "We see it as a part of the Christian community throughout the world and it's one of the ways that we recognize that we're part of a community far greater than us. There will be not just Lutherans, but Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopals, Catholics who are sharing the journey with us."