March 27 is Easter, the most important holiday for Christians around the world as they celebrate the resurrection of the central figure in their faith, Jesus Christ. Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified by the Romans, and that this resurrection makes salvation possible for all of humanity. The Easter story is a familiar one to Christians, and one that does not change from year to year. But the meaning of Easter for each individual is subject to change-as two ministers in the southern state of North Carolina are quick to point out.
Sanford, North Carolina is a small town nestled in the heart of the state's Piedmont region, equidistant from the Atlantic Ocean and some of the most beautiful mountains in the eastern United States. Sanford is primarily a manufacturing town, although there was a time not too long ago when agriculture dominated the economy in the region. There are more than 150 churches and religious organizations in this town of 23,000 -- clear evidence that the residents of Sanford, North Carolina, take their faith seriously. So seriously that many of them will be up before sunrise on Sunday, gathering to celebrate the message of Easter.
"We begin our service by gathering here on the grassy lawn overlooking the lake," says Ira Sutton, pastor of the Cool Springs Baptist Church in Sanford. "The beauty of the place is, you know, you hear the birds now? Well, at 6:30 in the morning, you can hardly hear yourself think. The birds are just coming alive, there are geese back here flying in, and nature and God's wonders are all around us."
Reverend Sutton has been serving the Cool Spring Baptist congregation for the past 13 years, and he says each year, when he sits down to write his Easter sermon, he does try to keep the message fresh. But, he says, his sermon alone is not what makes the Easter story new and interesting and relevant. "Ultimately, the passion and the desire come from our relationship with God," he says. "It's just like any relationship - a relationship that you may have with your mother, father, sister, brother. As you draw close to them, you have a longing to know more and more and more about them. It's kind of a hunger. And as we have our own, particular personal relationships with God, that desire is then carried over into corporate worship."
The relationships that individual Christians have with God are not the only thing that keep the Easter story fresh, according to Ira Sutton's colleague, Carl Frazier, who serves at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, just down the road from the Cool Springs Baptist Church. Reverend Frazier says those familial relationships mentioned by Ira Sutton also have an impact.
"We have people who will be here Sunday who have new children in their lives. They've had a baby since last Easter, some of them in this congregation since last week," says Reverend Frazier. "We'll have people here Sunday who have lost someone in their family since last Easter. People who have gone through divorce, people whose children have gotten married, people who are newly wed. Everybody will come with some different life experience from the one they brought last Easter. So what that does is I don't have to make the story fresh. The story will be fresh because people hear it in a different way."
Some people will hear it in a different way, because for a number of years now, America has been a country at war. This is the fourth Easter since the United States launched what political leaders refer to as the War on Terror, and for many people in the town of Sanford - located just 50 kilometers north of Fort Bragg, where the Army's Special Forces unit is based -- the situation in the Middle East is personal.
The region is, of course, the area where Jesus was born, grew up, and died, and both ministers say the conflict in Israel can be particularly troubling to Christians at this time of year. They say the images of violence and hatred coming out of the area where the Easter story took place are especially poignant. But both ministers also insist the violence is an important reminder to Christians of one of the central tenets of their faith. "There will be times of peace. There will be seasons of peace," says Ira Sutton. "But there will never be an absolute peace until, in my understanding of the Scriptures, Jesus returns to set up the millennial kingdom there."
Reverend Sutton stresses, though, that these seasons of peace are very important. "I feel our government should be about bringing about those seasons, through peace accords. But to have an absolute peace? Not until that day."
It is a sentiment echoed by Carl Frazier of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. "(The violence) is a helpful reminder to us," he says, "as we read the story and then look at what's going on now in the Middle East and Israel and the area surrounding it, that it's really nothing new. It's always land that's been fought over. So that makes the Bible more relevant in some ways. But it also reminds us of the central proclamation of ours, which is we are in need of something greater than ourselves to solve the mess that we're in. You know, we've made a mess of this. The only solution for this mess is for God to fix it for us."
And for the world's nearly 2 billion Christians, that is what the Easter story is all about: God's providing humanity with a way to fix the mess it is in.