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Centuries ago, a cross symbolized extreme capital punishment.

In 2019, as worshipers around the world prepare for Easter Sunday, it represents the key to salvation.

The cross on which Jesus Christ died is the center of the holiday, which carries both a solemn reminder and a promise: that the son of God perished to atone for mankind's sins then was resurrected, securing a connection they would otherwise have lost.

“We think heaven just comes free, but it came at a cost,” said Andy Timm, lead minister at Macomb Christian Church in Shelby Township. “Jesus paid an incredible price for us to have that someday. We have a chance at a new start.” 

One of the most sacred times in Christianity, Easter has endured because its story — triumph over worldly trouble and death — anchors the faith, said the Rev. Charles Packer, an adjunct instructor at Detroit’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary who leads Pine Hill Congregational Church in West Bloomfield Township.

"The Easter event is really the high point of the Christian year for most traditions," he said. "The rest of the year revolves around it."

Congregations across the region are marking the day with emotional worship services and gatherings that link the ancient traditions with the 21st century. Still, the devout realize the ramifications of an act nearly 2,000 years old remain unchanged.

“We’re celebrating the sacrifice that Jesus made for all of us,” said Christopher Chapman of Farmington Hills.  

The faithful in Metro Detroit prepared for Easter by retracing the end of Christ's earthly life as described in the New Testament, including the final meal he shared with his disciples.  

At Orchard United Methodist Church in Farmington Hills, members coordinated a tableau on Maundy Thursday to commemorate the Last Supper. Participants filled the roles of the apostles as well as several female followers, gradually extinguishing candles to symbolize the darkness surrounding the events preceding the crucifixion.

The goal was to “go to the cross,” said the Rev. Amy Mayo-Moyle, the church’s leader. “So often we don’t want to go to the cross and confront the fact that Jesus died an awful, cruel death. We confront and deal with that so that the crucifixion is so much more meaningful.”

Chapman, who kept his beard to portray Christ inthe piece, connected with the experience.

“That’s a very powerful and humbling thing to contemplate,” he said.

Ste. Anne Parish de Detroit recounted Christ's walk to his crucifixion on Good Friday in a lengthy procession featuring attendees in costumes and a replica cross.

Parishioners view the re-enactment and other related holiday events as another reminder of Easter's underlying message.

“It reinforces my faith,” said Yuliana Bautista, 31, of Lincoln Park, who is active at the parish.  

With that in mind, Easter and Holy Week, which commemorate Christ's last days, are typically when churches expect some of their highest attendance for expressive sermons and even baptisms.

Easter's themes have long resonated beyond church walls to attract others to the pews, if only for that Sunday, said the Rev. John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“Easter says Jesus is part of the human condition at its worst, and the rebirth is a real rebirth,” he said. “Which is why a whole lot of people over the years find themselves coming out of the services imagining they can start over.”

Christ’s path guided worshipers who contributed artwork depicting his time as an offender to an exhibit at the Kirk in the Hills refectory in Bloomfield Hills. Holy Week guests were invited to pray and consider issues such as criminal justice, said Tracee Glab, a member of the Presbyterian church who oversaw the display.

“It’s important to stop and take a look at how these events that seemed so long ago can be relevant to us today,” she said.

Jenny Gallo, an artist who started attending the church after moving from Kansas City five years ago, produced three violet-hued fabric panels inspired by a verse in the Bible’s book of John.

Creating the pieces “made me see the Scripture in a new way,” the White Lake resident said. “It can deepen our understanding, and in today’s fast-paced world, it can help us slow down.”

Easter and Holy Week also offer a chance to mimic Christ's service through giving back, the faithful say, including volunteering in the community or donating to charity.

Holy Week was when St. William Parish in Walled Lake welcomed those in need through the South Oakland Shelter, which works with rotating congregations to house clients in its emergency program.

Parishioners spent days feeding the guests, driving them around to appointments and tending to their laundry and other needs, said Erin Lang Hadden, one of the volunteers.

The church can choose other slots to host but insists on the time around Easter as another way to demonstrate Christ-like principles, she said. “There’s no greater time to put yourself in a position to help others.”

On Sunday, after a youth-led service at Calvary Baptist Church in Detroit, congregants are set to gather on the lawn to follow a longstanding tradition: releasing biodegradable balloons with notes bearing scripture and the east side house of worship’s phone number.

The balloons, which in the past have drifted as far as Canada, are flown to evoke “He is risen,” the common refrain associated with Christ’s resurrection, assistant pastor Avis Taylor said. “When that balloon goes up they know he’s alive. … It’s breathtaking.”

The Rev. Lawrence Foster, who has led the church for 25 years, plans to deliver another hopeful lesson through a sermon centered around a Bible passage in which Mary Magdalene fails to recognize Jesus after his reappearance.

“I pray that people will understand that God is with us, even when we don’t recognize God,” he said. “God is ever-present, ever-available, ever-loving and ever-supportive.”

Timm is crafting a similar message to present at his church in Macomb County, where more than 700 people are expected during Easter services.

The pastor’s presentation reflects the congregation's holiday theme, “Alive.” 

“The resurrection wasn’t just something that happened 2,000 years ago,” said Rebekah Martin, the church’s worship minister. “It’s something that’s still happening today because we can become alive through him.”

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