Early on Easter Sunday morning in 1732 a group of single young men, followers of Count Kikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf, after an all night prayer vigil made their way to the local cemetery, known as “God’s Acre,” just before sunrise to sing hymns as the sun arose. The following year the whole congregation joined in this celebration of the resurrection of our LORD in the most unlikely place for joy, yet the most fitting when you think about the reality of the story—“a celebration in a cemetery.”
These Movavians, a very missionary Protestant people, from Herrnhut Germany soon sent missionaries to North America. Possibly the first, but certainly the most historic Easter sunrise service in America is held annually in Old Salem, North Carolina. This annual gathering at “God’s Acre” dates back to 1772 complete with thousands of worshippers and brass bands! Yes, brass bands sound off as a big part of the celebration of our Risen Lord.
I must confess I have attended Easter Sunrise service for decades and knew little about its history and original. Instead of this celebration being rooted in the ancient traditions of the church it stands out as a relatively modern phenomenon. As you can see its roots run deep in the Protestant tradition started by the German Monk Martin Luther, who realized in his studies of the writings of Paul that “salvation comes by faith alone” in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As you remember from the gospels, Mary Magdalene and her close friends made their way to the tomb very early in the morning to anoint the body of Jesus. While it was still dark and the sun was illuminating the eastern horizon they picked their way along the path to pay their last respects to their rabbi and teacher. With heavy hearts broken by the events of Friday the women struggled to make sense of how love could be so easily crushed by hatred, envy, jealousy and evil. The darkness brooding over their souls crushed their spirits.
Yet when they arrived at the tomb, the large stone over the entrance had been rolled away, and instead of a detachment of soldiers they encountered angels declaring “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here—He is risen!” With these words the darkness lifted and the world took on a new luster and joy. Yes, it all happened in a cemetery.
This year our church will be joining others from our extended family of faith to “resurrection” an El Paso tradition of having an El Paso Easter Sunrise Service at the football stadium of El Paso High School. The service will not have a brass band, but members of our choir will lead us at its close in the Hallelujah Chorus! The service will feature a message based on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with our Lord immediately after His resurrection. It will start at 6:30 a.m. and will be followed by a continental breakfast in Price Hall.
One of my favorite Tom Lea quotes is:
“Sarah and I live on the east side of our mountain. It is the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the side to see the day that is gone. The day is the day coming…”
Easter cries out to one and all about the new day coming brought by the nail scarred hands of our risen Lord. I hope to see you early Easter Sunday morning looking east!