Saturday, April 07, 2007

An Easter Memory: A Moravian Sunrise

The photograph of Home Moravian Church in Winston Salem is not mine--I know I have photographs of Old Salem, but I didn't have the time to find them. I can assure you, the day I'm writing about, the skies were not clear!

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.

Addendum Easter 2007: As Murf indicated in the comments, this Easter won’t be much different. Actually, there wasn’t any snow accumulation back at my Old Salem Easter. We’re supposed to get a couple inches today and tonight so you can bet I’ll have gloves tomorrow, if for no other reason than to be able to toss a snowball.


  1. Wishing you and your family a happy and blessed Easter

  2. Once again a terrific post! Thanks for sharing the memory with us. It seems fitting that a day of joy and togetherness should bring just that, even if the sun and weather didn't cooperate.

    And I'm guessing the hotel dining room after the service was a sight to see. That poor waitress. But I'm sure pitching in to help the waitress made for a very friendly atmosphere and memorable breakfast.

    I'm not sure if we (your readers) say it too much or don't say it enough, but you sir are a wonderful writer.

  3. Funny how 20+ years later, your Easter weather hasn't changed. I hope you dress warmer tomorrow than you did on that day.

  4. Pretty yellow snow-covered flowers on this day before Easter... hope you have a good one!

  5. Wow..that's really rare that I say something that probably made you stop and say, "Oh yeah..she's right. I hadn't realized that." :-) Actually, this may be the first addendum I've ever caused.

    Regarding the snowball, I hope you aren't the sicko that gets the cheap thrill out of making one, showing it to the dog, making him think it's a real ball and then throwing it, causing the poor dog to stand there with that lost look on his face as he tries to find it.

    Happy Easter!

  6. I hope you enjoy your Easter Sunday service...and hope you are warmer this year! Thanks for sharing your story. It's amazing how vivid you can describe a day 20+ years ago. I can't do that with what I did last week!

    Michele sent me today :)

  7. Wonderful memory. But then I do not expect anything less from you. Have you thought of compiling all those and publish. If you haven't, it is time to think about that.

    Have a great easter sunday and I won't repeat what others have been saying....:D

  8. My friend from NC (who just moved back there from Cal) is Moravian . . . I think she is from the Winston-Salem area. I had never even heard of it until I met her, and learned it is the oldest form of Protestantism?

    Happy Easter to you!

  9. gypsy, happy easter to you and yours!

    V, I'm humbled (and I still remember the grades I made in English)

    Karen & Murf (and anyone else from this region), I hope you're enjoying a White Easter!

    Begered, But I didn't remember any of the message!

    Gautami, one day, one day I'll get around to it!

    Diane, Moravians predate Luther by nearly a century (they trace their history to John Hus who was burned in the 15th Century). Although they are older than most Protestants, the Waldensenians (North Italy) might get the record as being the "oldest Protestants" as their roots go back to the 12th century

    Paul, thanks & Happy Easter

  10. Have a wonderful Easter....we've been having snow showers here in PA all weekend.

    Oh and Michele told me to say hi :)

  11. I had the same thoughts, and wondered if this April's chilly weather had reminded you of that April.

    Most of my Easter memories involve crying as Mom made me put on a suit :)

  12. All I could think about today was those godawful easter bonnets we used to wear.

    I'm pretty sure I've been to Old Salem before. My husband did a timber frame somewhere there and I went to visit.

    Hi from me and michele!

  13. You know, I've almost come to expect a frigid Easter weekend. In fact, the only time my mom ever dropped an 'F' bomb was on an Easter weekend, when she opened the window in her living room and saw a fresh throw-rug of WNY snow. It made me laugh my butt off, which was her intent.

    Anyway, that was gret reminiscence, Sage.


  14. Never been to a sunrise Easter service. I guess I'm more like your parents in that aspect.

  15. Hope that you had a wonderful Easter and I loved your memories

    It's freezing here also. At least you have snow