What started as an idea for new publicity photos in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Mesa Easter Pageant blossomed into a project that is now a Spirit-filled exhibit of photos depicting the life of Christ.
"Reflections of Christ" opened Jan. 17 at the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors Center and is scheduled to run through Easter Pageant performances in March and into mid-June.
The exhibit proclaims the divinity of Jesus Christ using inspiring, fine art photographs representing people and events in the life of the Savior taken at sites similar to those in the Holy Land. Accompanying the photos is a moving, behind-the-scenes 30-minute documentary and sacred music recorded by local artists.
Viewers of the new exhibit have expressed powerful feelings of the Spirit.
"My emotions are very tender," said Bessie Ryther of Mesa, as she exited the exhibit on opening night. "It is awe-inspiring."
Her friend, Helen Udall, said, "I could feel the Spirit the whole time, bearing witness of the truth of Christ."
"From the first breath of Christ to His last, you feel His joys, pains and agony in Gethsemane," said Ty Porter of Gilbert. "You see the tears He cried for you."
"The power of the message is the testimony of Christ," said Elder David A. Peterson, visitors center director. "You feel that."
The exhibit is on display in one of the center's theater rooms. "It has been transformed into an art experience that highlights, in a reverential way, the life of the Savior," he said.
He explained that viewers walk through the darkened gallery where photographs are spotlighted and sacred music plays in the background. "Here they are able to have private, personal, sacred experiences as they ponder upon Jesus Christ," he said.
"This initiative has been undertaken in the spirit of our divine commission to proclaim the gospel and testify of Christ in the broadest and most effective ways possible," he said.
"These photos are symbols; we learn by symbols. We have created an environment here for the Holy Ghost to bear witness of Christ."
Elder Peterson invites all to bring families and friends to enjoy the exhibit. "Come and experience the beauty of photography at its finest," he said.
Nanci Wudel, Easter Pageant director, said professional photographer Mark Mabry of Mesa was extended a calling last fall to shoot photographs of pageant actors and actresses, in costume, and in a way that would communicate emotion.
"The more we discussed it, the more Spirit-filled the whole project became," she said.
"It also became such a project of consecration, in time, effort and finances," said Sister Wudel. "There were so many people involved, all united in purpose of bringing their brothers and sisters to Christ and the restored gospel."
Seeking spiritual direction in every decision, Brother Mabry, 30, said he never began shooting a scene without first inviting the Spirit through prayer, scripture study and discussing the principles taught from the event in Christ's life."We didn't do anything just for aesthetics; every one of them can teach a lesson."
He is grateful for nearly 100 people who gave countless hours to make this effort possible, from music, video, finding locations, costumes, props, framing and helping with myriad details.
"We thought that if this affects just one life, then it was worth it," he said. "But we realized that it already has it has literally changed the lives of every one of us involved.
"Photography is our medium," he said. "It is being used for so much evil, but it can be equally as good of an influence if we are willing to fight the battle, but it takes more effort."
Jason Barney, 39, of Gilbert produced the music.
"Mark was very specific with the music that he wanted to represent four different periods in Christ's life," he said. "It was an integral, indispensable part of how he wanted to tell the story."
Brother Barney wrote new arrangements for four hymns including "Joy to the World," "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "In Humility, Our Savior," "Amazing Grace," and local musicians added their talents to make it a sacred offering.
He said the experience definitely changed his life.
"Music has always been a critical element of how I learn of Christ and develop my testimony," he said. "And while I have been involved in many Christ-centered projects, my personal connection with my Savior and my desire to go to the scriptures and learn of Him increased through this experience more than any other."
"I think that happened for all of us because there were so many people with so many prayers, that it was done the way the Lord wanted it done."