In a group demonstration of the bonds of faith and community, the eight churches of the Great Falls Ecumenical Council will come together again this year to host a Good Friday and Easter sunrise service. The two services are part of the tradition of the council in celebration of “the moment in the Christian year,” as the Rev. Allen Pruitt, assistant rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, describes Easter.
The Good Friday service is hosted by St. Francis, at 9220 Georgetown Pike, and has been for the last four years. “We love doing it, and the council seems to enjoy the way Episcopalians do Good Friday,” said the Rev. Penelope Bridges, rector. The service is noon-3 p.m., and is an open-door and come-as-you-are event. Because of its length, many people come late or leave early; because of its timing Friday afternoon, business suits and jeans are equally welcome.
“Some people really want to be there for the first hour, and some people really want to be there to hear their people preach, and some people stick it out for the full three hours,” Bridges said. She explained that the first hour of the service is an Episcopalian service, with a dramatic reading of the Passion story from the Gospel of Matthew and traditional hymns. That is followed by music from members of St. Francis for about half an hour, and then the last 90 minutes of the service is an interdenominational presentation of the Seven Last Words of Christ. These homilies, Bridges said, will be given by six clergy members from the Ecumenical Council churches and one representative from the Virginia Theological Seminary. St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church has its own Good Friday service, she added.
“It’s a remarkably diverse set of voices,” she said. “It’s a rare treat to hear people from all those traditions come together. It means an awful lot to every member of the council.”
The Rev. Scott McAnally of Christ the King Lutheran Church said the afternoon makes a strong visual statement as well: “It’s so neat to see the clergy in their different vestments,” he said. “It’s a real sign of what the church is.” Some clergy wear robes, some wear collars, and some are in business suits.
Bridges said no formal offering is taken during the service, but there will be a basket at the back of the church for those willing to support a Christian school in southern Sudan, where two St. Francis members will visit for the first time later this month.
THE SUNRISE SERVICE on Easter Sunday at Great Falls Park is another Ecumenical Council tradition. Both clergy and lay members from the council churches said being outdoors for the service enhances the experience and draws even more attention to the Easter story. Milton Critchfield from Christ the King Lutheran Church said the setting of the falls — complete with boulders strewn around — helps make the story real. “You can visualize the resurrection, the coming out of the tomb,” he said.
McAnally agreed. “It puts you into the garden,” he said. “You live that resurrection story.”
The Rev. Nancy Childress, from Great Falls United Methodist Church, who spoke at last year’s sunrise service, said the setting offers more than the sermon: “You can hear the roar of the falls,” she said. “You’re listening to God’s creation.”
Despite the fact that attendees may need flashlights to get to the 6:30 a.m. service, the time of day augments the story as well, Bridges said. “It fits. There’s a very ancient way of looking at Easter as the new creation.”
Sandra Henderson of Smith Chapel United Methodist Church thinks it is an appropriate way to start Easter Sunday: “You get the whole day to think about what God did for you,” she said.
One part of the service the Rev. Paul Gysan of Christ the King Lutheran particularly enjoys is when a microphone is taken into the crowd, allowing people to share their prayers. Audio equipment for the service has been provided for several years by Jon Paul of Megawatt Inc. in Great Falls. Local Boy Scout troops also help the event run smoothly by guiding attendees to their places, passing out programs and cleaning up.
A recent tradition at the Ecumenical Council is the newest clergy member is the one who delivers the Easter Sunday service: this year, that is the Rev. Paul Liepelt of Dranesville Church of the Brethren, who is new to the area after spending time in Nigeria doing missionary work. The offering at this year’s service will benefit Habitat for Humanity.
The sunrise service can draw more than 200 people, according to Gysan. Animals are welcome as well: some people arrive on horseback, some bring their dogs. Pajamas and coffee cups are welcome too.
“I don’t think the people come wearing finery, but they come with faithfulness,” Gysan said.
WITH BOTH SERVICES, the Ecumenical Council is hoping the entire community will feel a renewed sense of faithfulness.
“Easter time is a great opportunity to welcome new people to the church,” Bridges said. She’s noticed that St. Francis’ membership sometimes swell after Easter, when people make a family commitment to begin attending church regularly. She said she has seen many new faces at the Good Friday services in the past. “A lot of people come who aren’t members of any church. [It is] a time when they feel a connection with the Christian community,” she said. The outdoor service two days later is similar, she said. “The sunrise service is another great opportunity for people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable inside of a church.”
Childress said the Easter season was a time when the council wanted to encourage people “to find the church of their choice and worship at it.”
McAnally agreed: “Communities of faith walk with people in both the mountains and valleys of life.”
Bridges is coordinating the Good Friday service at St. Francis Episcopal, which is noon-3 p.m. Friday, March 21; for information, contact 703-759-2082 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.stfrancisgreatfalls.org. Gysan is organizing the Easter Sunday sunrise service, which begins at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, March 23. Gysan can be reached at 703-759-6068 or email@example.com, or visit www.christ-the-king-lutheran.org.