Only yards away, early morning traffic roared along New Hampshire Avenue but it would have taken more than that to distract the flock gathered for a sunrise service yesterday in the blossoming garden of Silver Spring's Good yshepherd United Methodist Church.
Draped in coats and blankets to ward off the morning chill, about 100 churchgoers sang hymns and watched teen-aged girls and boys enact scenes fromt he scriptures. A 10-foot-tall cross roughly hewn from tree trunks was the only prop.
It was Easter Sunday, and like hundreds of churches in the Washington area, Good Shepherd, a congregation of 850 members, had begun a meticulously planned celebration of Jesus' rise from the dead, the spiritual fountainhead of Christianity.
But it was not just a day for piety. In line with American tradition, yesterday was also an occasion to display new spring wardrobes, the talents of sons and daughters and unshakable good cheer. For a parish or congregation, Easter is the social was well as religious high point of the year, the day when weeks of hard work bear fruit and its church is proudly on display.
"I've never enjoyed doing dishes before," said Judy Harris. "But it was easy today. Now isn't that ridiculous? No, it's not. It's how you feel [on Easter]."
At the main services later in the morning, Good Shepherd members moved over to give room to visitors, and the 30-year-old church's paneled sanctuary was filled to near capacity. All told, about 600 people showed up -- twice the normal turnout.
Formed in the 1950s, Good Shpeherd's congregation first met on the second floor of a Silver Spring firehouse, then raised the money to build a permanent church. Now, the congregation is holding steady in numbers but is strongly feeling the pinch of inflation.
Inside the colonial-style brick place or worship near the boundary of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Easter and its stories mean different things to different people.
To 10-year-old Trina Wood, decked out in her Easter best, it means "going to church, seeing friends, eating eggs."
To Rick Darling, an IRS official who directs Good Shepherd's Sunday school, Easter is a sign that the trials of winter (including the seasonal plague of poor attendance) have eased, making it "pretty clear that it's all down hill [from here], that we've crested and kept the church together."
To the church's energetic minister, the Rev. James Archibalc, it commemorates the Resurrection, "something so intensely unusual that it caught the attention of all of history." Without Easter, Archibald says, "Jesus would have gone down as [just] another good guy."
For Archibald and his congregation, planning how to celebrate the Easter season actually began last fall when a church committee polled members on what they wanted this year and got back 71 responses. By the time everything was over, more than 100 people had participated in some aspect of preparing for the celebration, from erecting the cross used in the sunrise service to preparing meals.
The formal program started on March 4, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent -- 40 days of religious reflection that were probably first observed during the Middle Ages. First was a series of Tuesday evening dinners attended by about 90 people to introduce congregation members to each other -- the church's children attend some 23 different schools.
Last Thursday, Maunday Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, was commemorated with a traditional Jewish Passover meal, which is what Jesus and the disciples ate that night. On Good Friday more services marked the day of the crucifixion itself, opening the way for Easter.
Main services began at 9:30 with the hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" as two choirs led by Easter banner carriers moved in procession down the aisles. The service underway, Archibald delivered a sermond touching on the world's current moral muddle, the inspiration of Jesus' Resurrection and other familiar Easter themes.
There were speical additions to the service: a dance interpretation to a choral anthem, a string quartet and a trumpet player to accompany the choirs. Services closed out with an impressive performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.
Afterwards, Archibald stood at the door pressing the hands of worshipers. For those interested, coffee, tea, and fellowship were available in the church parlor. Another Easter season was past.