'A unique, spiritual experience'

"An incredible spiritual experience" is what many of the volunteers in the Arizona Temple Easter Pageant said about their experience as the 56th annual presentation winds to a close.

And it's the spiritual experiences that seem to bring them back year after year.Each year hundreds of volunteers spend countless hours in planning, organizing, costuming, rehearsing and producing one of the largest annual Easter pageants in the world.

This year an audience of some 3,000 gathered March 26 for opening night of the pageant, titled, "Jesus the Christ," a 70-minute outdoor musical and dramatic portrayal of the life of the Savior as taken from the Bible. Produced on the lawn of the Arizona Temple, the pageant was performed in Spanish on opening night, and in English March 28-April 2. Nearly 80,000 attended the seven-day pageant.

For the cast and crew of more than 350, daily rehearsals lasted into the late hours of the night for three weeks before the formal performances. For some, designing and sewing costumes is a full-time task throughout the year. For all, sacrifices are made to meet the time-commitment of being involved in the pageant.

At least half of those involved are returning from previous years, some have even returned for more than 30 years and others have grown up on the ever-expanding sets and stages.

The Patrick and LeAnn Hord family of the Mesa 18th Ward, Mesa Arizona East Stake, has participated in the cast for 14 years. "My children tell me that this is the most important family tradition that we have because they come to know the Savior better," Sister Hord said.

"It was humbling to see our little children reach out to touch the man acting as Jesus and see the love they felt for him," she said.

Ammon, the Hord's eldest son, who is now serving a mission in Sweden, remembers the years of growing up in the pageant. In a letter Elder Hord wrote to Pageant Director Lund Johnson, the missionary said it was the most important activity he participated in because it allowed him to share the gospel with others while strengthening his own testimony.

Lewis and Melanie Nelson of the Mesa 13th Ward, Mesa Arizona Stake, returned to the pageant for the second year with their children. Brother Johnson said that being involved in the pageant provides a unique, spiritual experience. "It's like being on a full-time mission," he said.

He said pageant officials this year made a 5-point mission statement and referred to it often, as well as having it posted backstage. He said the statement included the basic reasons why the pageant is presented:

Testify of Christ. "We testify of Jesus Christ and the meaning of Easter in a way that all people can enjoy."

Bring to Christ. "We provide an event where all people can increase their love for the Savior and where referrals are generated for the missionaries."

Walk with Christ. "We share a spiritual experience so we can say with the audience, `I walked today where Jesus walked.' "

Rejoice in Christ. "We enjoy each other's company as Jesus would."

Speak of Christ. "We express the Easter Story with all the wonder, glory and majesty that can only be found in the grand pageant tradition."

Those involved in the pageant were encouraged in other ways to help them prepare spiritually. At a Sunday fireside before rehearsals began, Arizona Tempe Mission Pres. Steven Allen spoke to the group.

The cast and crew were also directed to think of the pageant not as a musical or dramatic production, but as a spiritual and missionary endeavor. They were encouraged to read the book of Mark and each one was asked to memorize 3 Ne. 5:13 which says, "Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life."

Pageant Chairman Douglas Holladay said, "The essence of the whole pageant is sharing the testimony of Christ. We truly feel that is our gift to the community."

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