Friday 10 April 1998

Resurrecting Good Friday

'Mention suffering and servanthood and the crowds thin out'

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

Mike Nyenhuis, left, and Tom Flood will be carrying this cross they built through the streets of Kanata today as part of an ecumenical walk.

Santa Claus stole Christmas. Now the Easter Bunny is stealing Easter, says Rev. Robert Hill.

Mr. Hill, of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church on Kent Street, says that, in the midst of the commercialization of Easter, Christians are losing sight of the message of the cross: obedience and sacrifice.

He says believers like the hopeful message of Christ's resurrection and will crowd the churches on Easter Sunday, but the turnout today at Good Friday services will probably be less than it would be on a normal Sunday.

"My problem is not with the Easter Bunny, and Easter cards, and the stores that open on Good Friday. My problem is with the church's unwillingness to reclaim the foundations of the faith for itself.

"The cross is the centre of the faith. You can't get from Christmas to Easter without going through that essential."

Other priests and ministers in the region agree. The Very Rev. Peter Coffin, dean of Ottawa's Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, says that, for many Christians, Easter has become just a good four-day weekend. "It's spring and it's very seductive to do other things."

He says some Christians have even forgotten who died on Good Friday.

"I remember ringing the church bell on Good Friday morning in Hull, when I was the pastor there, and somebody came in off the street and asked, 'Who died?' I almost cried."

Dean Coffin says about 2,000 people will attend the three services at the cathedral on Sunday, but only 300 to 400 people will probably attend today's one service, to be given at noon.

"Many people claim to be admirers of Jesus, but fewer are willing to do what it takes to be a disciple. As soon as you mention suffering and servanthood, the crowds thin out," he says.

Although attendance at churches may be lower than it once was, he says, many Canadians are still seeking spiritual answers and should look again at the enduring message of Easter.

"We all face crosses. Why not hook on to someone who actually faced the cross and won?"

In Ontario, all major stores will be closed today and on Easter Sunday. Stores in Quebec will also be closed Sunday but will be open today. Barry Nabatian, a retail analyst with Market Research Corporation, says Good Friday is one of the most important days of the year for stores in the Outaouais.

"They make huge amounts of sales from Ontario residents," he says.

In the 1950s, Quebec was one of the most pious Christian areas in the world, but only about 15 per cent of Quebecers now attend worship services weekly -- the lowest attendance of any province except British Columbia.

Retail stores in Quebec have been open on Good Friday for almost 30 years.

Until about five years ago, some shopping malls in Quebec paid lip-service to the significance of Good Friday by asking shoppers to observe a minute of silence at 3 p.m., but that custom has since disappeared.

Rev. Doug Ward, of Kanata Baptist Church, says most Protestant churches do not quite know what to do with Good Friday. "How can you have a worship service for Good Friday when you know the end of the story?"

Relatively few Protestant churches will have services today, and many denominations or groups do as the Baptists do in Ottawa: Hold just one service, in one location, for all those in the area who want to attend.

Mr. Ward says Good Friday has traditonally been a statutory holiday in Canada, but most Americans will be working today. When he attended a Baptist seminary in Kentucky, classes continued as usual on Good Friday.

He attributes our custom of a Good Friday holiday to the greater dominance in Canada of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, both of which have always emphasized the importance of worship services on the day of Christ's crucifixion.

Mr. Ward says many Christians no longer equate spirituality with attendance at church. Those born after 1950 attend worship services at half the rate of those born in the first half of the century. Overall, about one in five Canadians now attend worship services regularly.

But there are many indications Canadians are still interested in spirituality, Mr. Ward says. Churches that emphasize Christian orthodoxy and that meet parishioners' needs are growing, he said. Last weekend's youth concert for the upcoming Billy Graham Mission also attracted more than 6,000 young people.

One of the region's busiest churches is St. Patrick's Roman C atholic Basilica on Kent Street. "We have never seen a diminishing of attendance," Msgr. David Corkery says.

More than 1,200 people have been attending services at the basilica every day this week, and he expects another 5,000 people at services today. St. Patrick's seats only about 1,100.

"People will be standing outside in the street," he predicts.

Rev. Andrew Stirling, of Parkdale United Church, says Christian churches "are almost beyond lamenting the commercialization of Good Friday. We're now looking for a deeper meaning in Holy Week."

He says this week's attendance at Holy Week services in his church have increased substantially compared with last year, and he says that may be partly because of comments made last fall by the United Church's moderator, Rev. Bill Phipps.

Mr. Phipps told the Citizen's editorial board that "Jesus was not God," and Mr. Stirling says those remarks have prompted many Christians to re-examine their understanding of Jesus.

In Hawkesbury, 90 kilometres east of Ottawa, the town council recently voted to allow retail stores to open all day on Good Friday because of competition from merchants across the river in Quebec.

Rev. Jean-Louis Gosselin, regional vicar for the Catholic Church in Hawkesbury, said it was hard for the town council to say no to Good Friday shopping. "Many, many small stores have been forced to close down here, and the merchants were afraid that everybody would go to Quebec."

However, Father Gosselin still expects hundreds of local Catholics to participate in an annual ritual: a Good Friday pilgrimage to a series of local churches, where they will meditate on the crucifixion of Christ.

Good Friday walks will also be held today in Aylmer, starting at 10:45 a.m. at Saint Paul's Church; in Buckingham, starting at 1:30 p.m. at St. Stephen's Anglican Church; and in Kanata, beginning at the Beaverbrook Mall on Teron Road at 1 p.m.

Mike Nyenhuis is organizing this year's 13th annual ecumenical walk in Kanata.

He said more than 100 people will take turns carrying the cross in teams.

"It makes you appreciate a little more what Christ went through," he says.

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Copyright 1998 The Ottawa Citizen