Saturday, April 03, 2010

A Moravian Sunrise

This is a repeat. I've been rather busy lately and am heading off next week for spring break. In the spirit of the season, I'm reposting something I wrote back in the spring of 2007. Some things have changed--there is no longer a bank named Wachovia... Enjoy and have a blessed Easter.

One spring in the early 80s, I made a pilgrimage to Old Salem for the Moravian Sunrise service on Easter morning. Some say the Moravians invented the Sunrise service, but I think that honor goes to a handful of women back in Jerusalem during the first century. The Moravians only revived the tradition and have been doing Easter Sunrise Services in America since the 18th Century. If you ever get a chance to attend such a service at Winston Salem or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, go!

Going to Sunrise Services wasn’t something my family did when I was a child. It was hard enough to make it to church on time later in the morning. Folks often joked we’d be late for our own funerals, something I still hope will happen. The only time any of us were ever up before sunrise was to fish, which is perhaps why as soon as I could drive, I began attending Easter Sunrise services. It seemed a natural thing to do. After all, there is that resurrection story about the disciples fishing at sunrise. For me, it didn’t matter what the preacher said or how the choir sounded, watching the sun come up was enough of a message and more glorious than any praise I might mutter. This is especially true when you live near a body of water. Some years I would watch the rays’ race across the ocean and up onto the sand, other years I’d go to a service on the sound and witness the marsh grass bask in the sun’s warm rays as ducks take to the air. From the time I was sixteen, I’ve attended many sunrise services, but the one I’ll always remember was at Old Salem in the early 80s.

It was bittersweet, as I look back on it. I was in a failing relationship, but for that weekend, it didn’t seem to matter. We were young, right out of college. We drove up to Winston Salem on Saturday and spent the day touring Old Salem. We checked into a hotel right across the freeway from the village, an 18th Century town now swallowed up within metro-Winston-Salem. I’m not sure Salem got the best end of the merger, but at least they got a cigarette named after them. Old Salem was one of the first settlements in the Piedmont of North Carolina, settled by Moravians who made their way to Wachovia (as the settlement was originally known). Today there’s a bank with that name Wachovia.

That Sunday morning, a wake-up call came at 4:30 AM. Washing the sleep out of our eyes, we dressed as warmly as possible. The weather had turned cold and we hadn’t planned on it. I didn’t even have gloves. We made our way out into the streets, as I shuffled along with my hands in my pockets. On the corner a brass quartet played. This was true all over Salem, as brass quartets played hymns in the predawn hours, waking people up to the celebration that was about to begin. We walked, with hoards of others, making our way across the freeway and into the old village where we gathered with thousands on the lawn in front of the old church.

Anticipation filled the crowed as we waited, not sure what might happen next. It seemed odd to wait, but that was what the instructions said to do. And we waited, our ears numbed from the cold, could make out the brass quartets playing in the distance. A light breeze blew and the dark sky began to spit sleet and snow. We continued waiting. Right before dawn, the doors of the church opened and the preacher stepped out and shouted, “Christ Is Risen.” We responded, “He Is Risen Indeed.” The preacher and his assistants then led the crowd out to “God’s Acre,” the cemetery. “God’s Acre” must be like God’s years (a day is as a thousand years), for its’ much larger than a standard acre. This is a good thing for there is no way that the crowd could have all gathered on a 200 foot by 200 foot parcel. We settled in, facing the sun which was hiding somewhere behind gray clouds. Then, from behind us, the band entered. All the quartets that had been playing on the street corners had come together. There appeared to be several hundred of them, trumpets and trombones and French horns and tubas. We joined our voices with them praising God and worshipping the Risen One. It didn’t matter that I was out of tune, others drowned me out.

I don’t remember the message and didn’t actually see the sun rise, but just being there on Easter morning with the sky spitting sleet and snow was enough. After the service, we made our way back to the hotel, stopping in the dining room for breakfast. A lone waitress tried to serve us all, complaining that management has once again forgotten to expect a crowd on Easter. No body complained too much. Instead, several of us took turns serving coffee, the least it seemed we could do, as she ran around getting orders and bring out plates. It was late-morning by the time we’d eaten and checked out the hotel. Driving back east, the clouds broke. Along the edges of the roads, dogwoods bloomed.


  1. I've attended a few sunrise services in my day. These days I like when it's just Lana and me and the woods.

  2. Have you read the Ven' Bede on the Council of Whitby.

  3. Sage, enjoy your holidays and if you still follow this tradition, have a happy egg hunt day (Osterhose, they call it in Germany). We don't celebrate this in Spain, but we have other traditions, among them processions and also services at church.

    I'm just back from a tourism weekend off, where I've been able of admiring the people's devotion for the Easter traditions and celebrations.

    Have fun!

  4. Have a wonderful Easter Sage. I even might go to services tomorrow---been invited to a few churches or might go to the church of Costco with my friends who are in for the weekend. Not making fun of anything--my holiday was last week as you know, Well Costco

  5. Charles, sunrises are always special!

    Vince, no, I haven't. I'm actually fairly ignorant on early British history.

    Leni, my daughter said she'd hide eggs, but I'd have to dye them... I think the easter egg hunts are about over for me... I hope you had a wonderful break.

    Pia, (I'm shaking my head). The Church of Costco is only a notch less heretical than the Church of Walmart... but whatever you do tomorrow, may it be wonderful and I hope your Passover celebration was a blessing.

  6. Wonderful--visited Moravian Church in NC. Went to learn about Small Groups and Home Groups there! Awesomely wonderful people!

    Have a blessed and Safe Spring Break, and hurry back and regale us with yore....whatever the heck that means!

    I think it means --Tell us what went down!


  7. Nice story, Sage. Have a wonderful Easter!

  8. Beautiful story... Have a happy Easter :)

  9. What a fine way to welcome Easter! Great story, my friend...and Happy Easter to you and your family!! :)

  10. Stopping by to wish you a happy Easter evening :)

  11. I hope your Easter was blessed.

    Thanks for sharing this memory.


  12. At Whitby, the date of Easter was set. Before that the North and the Mountains had followed the old way of calculation. It could be seen as the date when Rome started its move to closer controls.

  13. What a blessing. I hope your spring break week is going well!

  14. I truly say that it is one of the most moving and religious events in which I have ever taken part. It is 238 year tradition and many people went to Moravian sunrise service in Old Salem participating from around the world.

    Best Regards,