Palms and cloaks lay at the entry to the makeshift holy city. A lush garden of Gethsemane held two chalices, labeled "My Will" and "God's Will." A crown of thorns and cat o' nine tails lay on another table. Large nails were placed in front of a wooden cross where visitors could nail their sins using their own, smaller nails. The smell of fragrant plants and the sounds of Gregorian chants filled the room.
The Holy Week prayer labyrinth, which combines the idea of a traditional labyrinth with an experiential Stations of the Cross meditation, was the brainchild of associate pastor Stan Cardwell.
Cardwell came from St. Mary's County to help run The Vine, a network of small groups from the Bel Air church that has been worshiping at Emmorton Elementary School. The program is an experimental church initiative between Bel Air UMC and the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Friday marked his fourth year organizing Bel Air's prayer labyrinth, which also was open from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Linwood Avenue church.
Every year, "we just keep tweaking it and modifying it," Cardwell said, as a steady stream of people entered the fellowship hall Friday morning. "It picks up in the evening, of course, when people are off of work."
A program guides visitors along the lines of the labyrinth and through the stations, which include activities like writing about faith and doubt and concluding with communion.
Cardwell said he likes the idea of an experiential Stations of the Cross, where people can hear, smell, touch and be part of the story of Jesus' crucifixion.
"I get chills, when people walk across the palms and it makes that crunch," he said.
He said the contemplative nature of the labyrinth makes sense as an experience of its own, focused on the Crucifixion and set apart from Easter.
"It really kind of fits that this is Holy Week," he said. "We don't move to the Resurrection. We really want people to taste this week without moving ahead."
He noted that idea is part of the labyrinth: looking down, not ahead, and focusing on the present.
The entire project takes about a dozen Vine volunteers most of two days to set up.
It involves finding unique items like an authentic cat o' nine tails and long nails similar to what might have been used on the cross.
"We have a great group of volunteers," Cardwell said. "It's a lot of work."