Easter in the Valley of the Sun

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Every April for 65 years, the Mesa Arizona Temple grounds have become the hillsides of Judea, the streets of Jerusalem, and the olive groves of Gethsemane as more than 700 volunteers work together to produce the annual Mesa Arizona Easter pageant, Jesus the Christ. Started as an Easter sunrise service atop an old cotton wagon, the pageant, now an evening program, draws thousands of spectators every year to both English and Spanish performances.

“Many families have a long tradition of coming year after year as a special celebration of Easter,” says pageant director Nanci Wudel. “Some even plan family reunions to coincide with the pageant.”

Supervised by the Church’s Missionary Department, the pageant represents a massive outreach by the Latter-day Saint community in the greater Phoenix area. “Our purpose is to bring people to Christ by bearing testimony that He lives,” explains Sister Wudel. And they are successful as family after family gains a renewed faith in the Savior and the desire to know more about His gospel.

But Latter-day Saint cast members are blessed as much as spectators. “It is like having the best family home evening every day of the week!” comments Lee Pace, whose entire family of 10 participated in the 2002 pageant.

As the actor portraying Jesus Christ ascends above the 400 cast members and 19,000 spectators at the end of each performance, all eyes are drawn to the white figure framed by the lighted Mesa temple and the dark Arizona skies. The scene plays out the Savior’s own words, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).

In the end, love of Jesus Christ underscores the entire pageant. From costume designer to cast member, says Sister Wudel, all “volunteer their time and talents each year for one reason—their love for the Savior.”

Brian K. Kelly, Highland 19th Ward, Highland Utah West Stake, and Naomi Frandsen, BYU 154th Ward, Brigham Young University Second Stake

Pageant at a Glance

  • In 2002 it was the largest annual outdoor Easter pageant in the world.

  • The script has been drawn exclusively from the Holy Bible to appeal to audiences of all Christian faiths.

  • An 80-member Hispanic media public affairs committee was formed in 2002, and over 14,000 attended the two Spanish performances.

  • Every Phoenix television station, including three Spanish-language stations, carried television coverage to a prospective viewing audience of 1.5 million.

  • Cast members rehearse weeknights and Saturdays for one month before performances.

  • The stage management, costumes, makeup, construction, lighting, sound, and security are provided by volunteers.

  • Thirty stakes from Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, and Scottsdale provide, transport, and set up 10,000 chairs before opening night.

  • Music for the soundtrack is by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra at Temple Square, and the Utah State University Chamber Singers.

  • The 9,600-square-foot stage can hold 500 cast and crew members plus sheep, donkeys, doves, miniature horses, and other animals.

Answers from the Pageant

I had been a television broadcaster for 20 years and was anchoring the evening news for a Phoenix, Arizona, station when I was introduced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After several discussions, the sister missionaries issued the baptismal challenge to me and my husband, Neil. But while I wanted to accept the challenge and move forward, I also had some fears.

When my father learned of my interest in the LDS Church, he and a friend pummeled me with an onslaught of negative propaganda, including allegations that Latter-day Saints worship a “different” Jesus. Although many of the accusations seemed absurd, I didn’t know how to defend my new faith. The reporter in me wanted answers, but I could only cry “Not true! Not true!” without any proof to back up my feelings.

About this time, our neighbors invited us to attend the “must-see” Mesa Arizona Easter pageant. It was a rainy, cold night when we arrived, but during the opening prayer, the rain suddenly stopped. Immediately, I felt strongly that we were in the right place.

The rest of the evening taught me how much the Latter-day Saints did indeed believe in Jesus Christ. In fact, the script was all taken from the very Bible I had grown up with! As I watched scene after beautiful scene, I had the overwhelming feeling that right there in front of me, on that huge stage, were the very answers I had been searching for.

When the pageant ended, I left the temple grounds feeling as if I were floating on air. I knew I had the power and the strengthened resolve to face my father and his friend and to answer every one of their allegations. My growing testimony had the reinforcement it needed, and I knew I was going in the right direction.

With newfound courage, I pressed forward in my new faith, and less than a month later, my husband and I were baptized. A year later, my husband and I found ourselves once again at the pageant—this time with my co-anchors from the television station. Now we were the missionaries, sharing with our friends the changing power and spirit of the life of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Jineane King is a member of the Harris Second Ward, Mesa Arizona Central Stake.

Converted on a Cross

When my mother arranged for our family to audition for the Mesa Arizona Easter pageant, she never guessed that her 20-year-old son would be cast as an angel. But two weeks after auditions, I was wearing an enormous, floor-length, white satin costume with huge draping sleeves and practicing modified ballet moves as the choreographer called, “Now gracefully sweep your right arm to the left, right crossover with the leg, and raise both arms up elegantly.”

I would be turning 21 shortly, and a mission was somewhere in the distance. When I became “number 434” at the auditions, I didn’t suspect that this pageant would change those undefined plans.

Shortly after I became a dancing angel, a director informed me of a “slight modification.” She told me she had been awakened several times the night before with a dream that number 434 should be a thief on the cross, not an angel. I willingly switched my white dress for a loincloth and shorts.

By opening night, every line and song had become routine to me. As I climbed on my cross and slipped my arms into the rope restraints before the crucifixion scene, I thought casually, “It’s show time.”

But during the eight performances in which I hung next to the actor portraying Jesus Christ, something began to happen in my heart. As the lightning and thunder depicted the end of His earthly mission, the story of Jesus that I had known since Primary was becoming real to me. I felt the Savior’s love like the night air around me. With that understanding as a catalyst, I sent in my mission papers the next month and soon received a call to the Canada Toronto Mission.

Although I never played the role of an angel, it took another kind of angel, my mother, to help me change my life through the Easter pageant. Since the pageant and during my mission, the scriptures have come alive to me as I receive continual witnesses of the reality of my Savior’s life.

Mark Layton is a member of the Mesa 70th Ward, Mesa Arizona East Stake.

My Neighbors’ Church

I was raised in a religious home, but I didn’t know any Latter-day Saints until my husband and I moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Although we were staying with my ailing mother, I worried about finding a good neighborhood in which to raise our three children.

One difficult day, I found myself driving aimlessly and pleading to God for help. When I felt calmer, I found myself in a neighborhood I had never seen before. As I pulled onto the street where we would later purchase our home, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace.

Our new neighbors were amazingly hospitable. “What can we do to help?” they asked continually, and soon after we arrived, a neighbor brought us a hot loaf of bread. I remarked to my sister that our neighbors must be Christians, and I later discovered that, indeed, many of our neighbors had one thing in common: they were Latter-day Saints.

Overwhelmed by our neighbors’ kindness, I awoke my husband one night and said that if all of these wonderful people belonged to one church, we needed to look into it. The very next day, missionaries knocked on our door and invited us to the Mesa Arizona Easter pageant.

As we watched the depiction of Christ’s Resurrection, my husband asked incredulously, “You mean, Jesus died and then came back?” In amazement, I realized he was just learning the story of Christ. After the pageant, we wanted to know more about the gospel. As the missionaries taught us and we attended Sunday meetings, I felt the Church’s positive influence.

One day during a game of Name That Tune, my son whistled an unfamiliar song. When I finally gave up, he said, “It’s ‘Follow the Prophet.’ That’s my favorite song” (see Children’s Songbook, 110). His words left me stunned and anxious to talk with my husband about the incident.

“Will our life be better with or without the Church?” I asked him. After a year of investigating, we were baptized.

Our gospel knowledge is still a work in progress, but each day our testimonies grow stronger. We will be forever grateful for that night when the reenactment of the life and mission of Jesus Christ became an eternal turning point for our family.

[photos] Right: Cast member Georgina Uribe and her daughter, Scarlett, age 2, model authentically designed costumes for the pageant. (Photograph by Mark Mabry Jr.) Below: The Mesa Arizona Temple and Visitors’ Center grounds provide a peaceful setting for audience and cast members. (Photograph by Welden C. Andersen.)

[photos] Photographs by Richard Webb, except as noted

[photos] Right: Shepherds receive the good news of Christ’s birth. Below: Young Jesus’ preaching astonishes teachers at the temple in Jerusalem.

[photo] The pageant taught Jineane King how much Latter-day Saints really do believe in Jesus Christ.

[photo] Mary and Joseph gaze at the infant Jesus.

[photos] Left: Derisive Sadducees mock Jesus’ teachings. Below: Jesus relates the parable of the ten virgins to His Apostles.

[photo] Mark Layton was cast as one of the thieves being crucified next to Christ.

[photo] Dancers help depict the parable of the ten virgins.

[photos] Cristi Smith learned about the Church through her neighbors and the pageant.

[photo] Jesus Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.

[photo] Roman soldiers take Christ to be questioned by Pilate.

[photos] Far left: Jesus Christ serves His disciples at the Last Supper. Left: Peter denies that he was with Jesus Christ.

Cristi Smith is a member of the Groves Ward, Mesa Arizona Mountain View Stake.