LOS ANGELES - Social media has been buzzing for weeks with jokes about how, this year, Easter Sunday shares the calendar with the pot-lover's highest holiday: April 20, or 420 in stoner lingo. Pot-smokers have long celebrated on the date by lighting up for reasons not quite clear.
Yet amid the online cracks about worshipping a "higher" power, tutorials on how to make a joint shaped like a cross and photos of Easter baskets piled with pot-filled eggs, a handful of churches nationwide are using the unfortunate coincidence to make much bigger points.
In the Highland Park (no kidding) neighborhood of Los Angeles, a church is using medical marijuana imagery and catchy word play to attract new worshippers to an Easter sermon series called "Medicated," about seeking fulfillment through God, not drugs. And across the country, in Mississippi, a church is hosting a massive concert to denounce marijuana legalization with the title "Reverse 420: God Keeps Me High."
"I was sitting on a plane and I was looking at my calendar, and I realized that Easter fell on 4/20 and I thought, 'Man, half of my friends, they're going to be doing something else on 4/20. They're not going to want to come to church,'" said Pastor Justice Coleman, founder of Freedom Church in Highland Park.
"So, how could we put together a talk or a program that wouldn't celebrate smoking weed, but would celebrate the idea that there's so much more to life," said Coleman, 30. "That's what we're going to be talking about."
Coleman's mailers and promotional video for the Easter service include the green cross associated with medical marijuana clinics and a teaser that recalls Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection: "Celebrate 4/20 with us because you can't get any higher than risen."
"I think the idea that we supplement our lives with a lot of things, I think that resonates with a lot of people," he said. "Imagine a life where you didn't need to do that."
The church events come against the much more irreverent backdrop of the Internet, where social media has exploded with pictures of bunnies chomping on marijuana leaves, plastic Easter eggs stuffed with dope and posts such as "Blaze it and praise it!" One Twitter account included Photoshopped images of Jesus holding a bong and presiding over the Last Supper at a table heaped with ridiculous amounts of weed.
In California, many medical marijuana dispensaries have long offered special promotions to their clients on 4/20 and, this year, they have added Easter-themed goods, such as plastic eggs stuffed with pot-infused chocolate truffles.
The significance of the April 20 date is unclear and shrouded in urban legend. The most common version maintains that 420 was police scanner code for "smoking in progress" - and stoners who heard it quickly adopted the number as shorthand for their favorite pastime.
Another story holds that a group of kids from Northern California would always meet behind a school wall between classes at 4:20 p.m. to smoke, and the phrase spread.
Scott Chipman, chair for the Southern California chapter of Citizens Against Legalized Marijuana, said he finds churches who are using the date as a marketing ploy offensive - but if the events draw even a few pot users to the pews for the first time, it could have an upside.
"Of course our group would not be supportive of church activities that would encourage drug use, but I think we need to ask why people use drugs. What is so bad about people's lives that they feel the need to escape and numb themselves from life and life's challenges?" asked Chipman, who regularly attends church. "For many, this seems to be a spiritual problem."
That's exactly the kind of message Pastor Tonya Ware is trying to get across at her church in the Jackson, Miss., area. The Church Triumphant Global, where Ware is executive pastor, is hosting a massive anti-pot concert and T-shirt giveaway after their traditional Easter service and leading a "no weed" pledge at 4:20 p.m. - the precise time when many potheads light up to celebrate.
When the church realized Easter coincided with 4/20, it decided to embrace the opportunity, Ware said.
"Not only should the church be culturally aware, but the church also takes full advantage of what is happening in that moment and seizing that moment. The reason why Jesus was so popular - and he was a superstar - is because he knew how to take advantage of events that were already happening," she said.
"He would go where the people were, and Easter Sunday is huge. People who don't go to church any other time usually go to church on Easter."