By Josette Keelor
The most important week in the Christian calendar begins on Sunday, and area churches will combine efforts for Palm Sunday services.
Congregants who enter the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall from four sides Sunday morning will carry palms from palm trees like crowds did when Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem days before his death. It's short and moving, said Pastor Richard Reifsnyder of First Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Loudoun St., Winchester.
"It's quite a sight to see, actually."
Sponsored by the Downtown Clergy Fellowship, the ceremony on the lawn of the old courthouse is about 15 minutes, and any interested churches and individuals are invited to attend.
Expected to participate this year are First Presbyterian, Braddock Street United Methodist, Christ Episcopal, First Baptist, Centenary Reformed Church of Christ and Highland Memorial Presbyterian.
"We get as many as can participate," Reifsnyder said. "It's a very brief service. It's basically a blessing of the palms."
Then celebrants return to their churches to continue their own faith, he said. "It's really an attempt to affirm our unity in Christ."
Palm Sunday service is the first of many special gatherings Christians will attend this week, leading up to Easter, an annual reminder of Jesus' rising from a borrowed tomb. It's the most sacred day of the Christian year.
Other plans next week include Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday services in remembrance of the Last Supper, when Jesus and his apostles celebrated a Passover seder meal. Activities that night could include sacred music and symbolic washing of the feet.
Good Friday, a final day of fasting at the end of the Lent, is marked with morning, afternoon and evening services around the world when Christians honor the day on which Jesus was interrogated by Roman officials, sentenced to death and that evening crucified.
Following a day of waiting, Easter morning dawns with an aura of relief and joy. Six weeks of fasting and expectation are over, and exclamations of "Hallelujah" (absent during Lent) return to the lips of churchgoers. Easter hymns like "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" will sing from sanctuaries and perform from church bell towers.
In Winchester, an ecumenical Good Friday service will be at noon on Friday at Braddock Street UMC, 115 Wolfe St., and an Easter sunrise service at Mount Hebron Cemetery, 305 E. Boscowen St., by the old Lutheran Church, Reifsnyder said.
The fellowship -- established almost 20 years ago by the ministers five area churches including First Presbyterian, Braddock Street UMC and Christ Episcopal -- recently welcomed chaplains at the Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury retirement community and the new Lutheran home at the Village at Orchard Ridge, as well as leaders at Beth El Congregation and the Islamic Society of Winchester.
"That's been nice because we have been able to learn more," Reifsnyder said. Combining efforts makes it possible to fulfill a personal need, he said.
"Sometimes we can speak with one voice."
Still, most events organized by the Downtown Clergy are Christian, and Reifsnyder said, "Our Muslim and Jewish brothers understand that but are happy to be part of the fellowship."
Participants in the Blessing of the Palms ceremony will start gathering at 10:15 a.m. Sunday at their own churches, said Pastor Kitty Hahn-Campanella of Highland Memorial Presbyterian Church and current convener of the Downtown Clergy.
She said witnessing the combining of congregations that usually wouldn't worship together is an interesting way of reenacting Jesus' warm welcome into Jerusalem.
"It kind of reminds of people coming from everywhere," she said. "It's a special way for us to just say the savior is coming and it's a celebratory time."
That day in Jerusalem, she said, the crowds shouted "hosanna." It meant "save us," she said, "and that's what the people were hoping Jesus was doing as he came into the town."
She recently read that the definition has changed.
"Now when you hear 'hosanna,'" she said, "it is a cry of victory that means 'salvation has come.'"
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org