Easter Sunrise Services are held at Landings Harbor Marina this Sunday (April 21) at 6:30 PM. Below is an article that appeared in The Skinnie, March 16, 2018.
The Sun Will Come Up
The wake-up call came at 4:30 AM Sunday morning. I am staying at a hotel right across from Old Salem in present-day Winston Salem. Washing the sleep out of my eyes, I hear the music playing from the street down below. It was been warm when I left home in eastern North Carolina, but a cold snap descended on Saturday. I dress as warmly as possible, pulling on multiple layers. I realize I don’t even have gloves with me.
By 5 AM, I am outside the hotel, walking with strangers, heading to Home Moravian Church. On most street corners, we pass brass quartets playing Easter music, calling people to come. By the time I reached the church, thousands are gathered, waiting in front of the steps of the church. A cold wind blows and the dark sky spits snow. In the distance, we hear the brass playing. We shuffle around trying to stay warm and waited. The anticipation of the crowd is high as we have all gathered to participate in the second oldest Easter sunrise service in North America. The honor for the oldest sunrise tradition belongs to the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who began holding such services in 1754.
It was still dark when a light comes on inside the church foyer. Then massive wooden doors fly open and the pastor steps out, raising his arms and shouting, “Christ is Risen!” We respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” The Pastor and his assistants step out of the church and we follow them down Church Street to God’s Acre, the community’s cemetery. God’s Acre is actually many acres, large enough to hold the thousands who have gathered. We pack in and wait as the sky becomes lighter gray. A few stray flakes of snow still fall.
Then it starts. All those brass quartets unite and they march in from behind us playing Easter hymns. As they move to the front, we stand and began to sing. The ministers pray and read scripture. The pastor offers a brief message about the hope of the resurrection. Somewhere behind the gray clouds, the sun rises. A new day begins. The benediction is pronounced and we head our separate ways.
Arriving back in the hotel, I stop by the restaurant for breakfast. The place is packed with those coming back from the service. The poor lone waitress is running around trying to serve everyone. Most of us just want hot coffee and are willing to wait to eat as we warm up. She apologizes and says the management had forgotten that it’s Easter Sunday and hadn’t scheduled anyone else to work the shift. Several of us help out, taking turns making and serving coffee as she takes and delivers our orders.
The Moravians of Old Salem have been celebrating Easter Sunrise at God’s Acre since 1772, picking up on a practice that begin in Europe in 1732. In the town of Hernhut, which is now in the Czech Republic, the young men of the church gathered in the cemetery during the night and waited for dawn by singing hymns of the faith. The services are simple with hymns, prayers, scripture and a brief message that is all done to the glory of God. The sunrise service is now an established tradition within the Moravian Church and one that has been adopted by many other Christian denominations.
Of course, those Moravian young men were not the first to be up at sunrise on Easter. That distinction goes to the women described in the gospels who headed out before sunrise to anoint Jesus body before the tomb was sealed. They were shocked to find the grave open and Jesus’ body missing. As the events of that day unfold, they learn of his resurrection, an event that gives hope to Christians to this day.
I first attended an Easter sunrise service as a high school student. It was held in a cemetery off Greenville Sound, east of Wilmington, North Carolina. Unlike the year I was at Old Salem, the skies were clear. And just as the sun broke over the horizon, its rays reflecting off the water and bring warmth to the marsh grass, several ducks took the skies, their calls and the flapping of their wings drowning out the voice of the preacher. Even they celebrated the new day. In the years before seminary, I would attend many such services at a variety of locations. The message was always the same. Christ has risen!
For obvious reasons, sunrise services seem to be more popular in the American South, but as a seminary student pastor, I brought the tradition to Virginia City, Nevada. There, we gathered on “Boot Hill” on a cold morning. The temperature was in the mid-20s and the wind was blowing hard over Mount Davidson. But we witnessed a glorious sunrise, the rays racing up Six Mile Canyon. Afterwards, we enjoyed coffee and warm pastries back at the church.
In my first call to a church in Ellicottville, New York, a community known for skiing, we partnered with Holiday Valley, the local ski resort, to host the service on a deck outside a clubhouse. It was even colder than at Virginia City, but most of us were dressed appropriately, wearing ski bids and parkers. A young woman volunteered to provide music on a keyboard. We started with a song and were going to close with the traditional hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” As we began to sing, she missed note after note and I looked over to see what was wrong. The keyboard had frosted over between hymns and her fingers were sticking to the keys. Afterwards, with hot drinks and donuts inside the lodge, we had a laugh over the situation. The next year, she brought a blanket to lay over the keyboard.
This year, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will hold a Sunrise Service for islanders at Landing Harbor Marina on Easter Sunday, April 1, beginning at 6:45 AM. Sunrise is at 7:12 AM. We shouldn’t have to worry about fingers sticking to the keyboard or shuffling around to stay warm in freezing weather, but you may want to come prepared with bug spray, a jacket and a lounge chair. We’ll gather in the darkness and the service will conclude shortly after the sunrise. If it is raining, the service will move to Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, located at 50 Diamond Causeway. There, in Liston Hall, we can experience a virtual sunrise on a video monitor while enjoying dry conditions. Last year, a large crowd enjoyed a glorious Sunrise and everyone is invited again this year.
For more information, call Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church at 598-0151 or go to the website, www.sipres.org.