Sunrise Service

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Sunrise Service

According to Christian scripture, Jesus'followers discovered his empty tomb at dawn on Easter Sunday morning. Thus Christians have long associated the dawn hour with the Resurrection. In past centuries European folklore claimed that the sun danced for joy as it rose on Easter Sunday morning (see also Easter Sun). In many European towns and villages people rose early on Easter morning in order to see this marvelous sight. They gathered together on hilltops or wide, flat plains to begin the long-awaited Easter celebrations at the first glimpse of the sun. In the United States today many Protestant churches hold special sunrise services at dawn on Easter morning.

The history of the American Easter sunrise service stretches back before the founding of the United States of America. Moravian communities were the first to hold regularly scheduled sunrise services on American soil. The Moravians, also known as the American Branch of the Renewed Church of the Unity of the Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum, are members of an evangelical Protestant denomination that originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. The first Moravians immigrated to the American colonies in the eighteenth century. In 1752 a group of young men, residents of the Moravian community of Salem, North Carolina, gathered together to pray on the evening of Holy Saturday. As the dawn hour approached they recalled that Jesus' female followers rose early on Easter Sunday morning to visit Jesus' tomb and thus received the first news of the Resurrection (see also Mary Magdalene). This example inspired them to end their observances at the local graveyard. There, as the first rays of the Easter sun glimmered on the eastern horizon, they sang hymns of praise to God in celebration of the Resurrection. This event quickly evolved into a tradition that the community still upholds.

Today preparations for the Easter sunrise services in Winston-Salem begin around two a.m. on Easter Sunday morning. Members of brass bands assemble outside at this early hour and prepare to play Easter music in the last few hours before dawn. This joyful noise wakens worshipers, who assemble outside the Moravian church before daybreak. The minister announces, "The Lord is risen!" to which the multitude replies, "He is risen indeed!" After singing a few Easter hymns the congregation forms a long procession to the Moravian cemetery, accompanied by the brass bands. The morning's service concludes in the graveyard as the sun gradually illuminates the tombs of the departed. Other towns settled by Moravians, such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, host similar sunrise services on Easter morning.

The Easter sunrise service has become a common feature in many American Protestant churches. Unlike the Moravian observances, however, these services generally do not take place in cemeteries. In those regions that can expect mild weather at Easter time, sunrise services are often held out of doors so that worshipers may experience the moment of sunrise as a living symbol of the Resurrection (for more on dawn and the east as Christian symbols, see Easter, Origin of the Word). Local congregations often retire to nearby beauty spots, neighborhood parks, city plazas, hilltops, meadows, and mountaintops to convene their Easter sunrise service. Well-known Easter sunrise services can be found in some of America's most beautiful parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Services are also held at such nationally recognized locations as New York's Central Park and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. In Hollywood, California, tens of thousands of people attend a sunrise service in the Hollywood Bowl, a huge outdoor amphitheater. A full symphony orchestra accompanies the massive choir that sings during this event.

The citizens of the easternmost state of Maine claim the honor of being the first Americans to witness the Easter dawn. Special Easter services are held atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine's Acadia National Park, a location said to receive the first rays of the sunrise as it sweeps across the American continent. America's Easter sunrise celebrations may well conclude with those held in Hawaii, the westernmost state, especially with the ceremony held at Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery, just outside Honolulu. The sun must rise high in the sky before these worshipers catch a glimpse of it, since this service is held inside the crater of an inactive volcano.

Further Reading

Hark, Max J. "Moravian Sunrise Service." In Alfred Shoemaker's Easter in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1961. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hogan, Julie. Treasury of Easter Celebrations. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publications, 1999. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999.

Web Site

"Moravian History, Terms, and Facts," a page posted by the Moravian Gift and Book Shop of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, an arm of the Board of Education of the Moravian Church: . htm
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