Pastoral source confesses: Most joyful day of the Chfristian year is the one he dreads.
For more than 25 years, I served a small, rural church that understood and even shared my attitude toward Easter sunrise services. The good folk of Sneedler’s Cove gathered at the delightfully civilized hour of 9:00a.m. for Easter observances. We had a special service, a leisurely breakfast during our usual Sunday school time, and then the 11:00 a.m. worship.
When a newish member asked about the absence of any peri-dawn revelry, I put it this way: “Easter is supposed to be a day of unbridled, unalloyed, indeed supernatural joy. I don’t know anybody around here who feels that way after getting up and dressed and out in time for sunrise.”
Early Risers Will Not Be Denied!
More recently, though, I have served a congregation of exuberantly early risers in Runcible, Alabama. If you ask me, adherence to the Easter Sunrise tradition has been a colossal blot on an otherwise spotlessly productive, joyful relationship.
My reservations about sunrise services began in my adolescence. While my family had called Thanecawdor home for generations, Mom and Dad and I only moved there when I was 12. As a new kid, I was subjected to relentless jibes that did not relent during church hours. It was one thing to receive a red-belly when you were on the clock at school or at hazard during a touch football game, but at church it seemed especially uncalled for.
Not only that, but during Holy Week, we had special 6:00 a.m. services every morning, then a special Maundy Thursday service in the evening, then a Good Friday service.
Under normal circumstances, I would be able to deal with such impingements upon my sleep and TV schedule my upping my usual level of grousing, complaining, whining and sullenness, but even in this, I was denied. The guest preacher always stayed at our place, so I had to be on my best behavior lest I face a special vintage of parental wrath, bottled on Palm Sunday and fermenting through the night of Good Friday.
On Easter morning, when I dragged myself into and out of our venerable Oldsmobile in the grey pre-dawn, I was even more incoherent than usual. The pivotal moment in all of Christianity, our celebration of the miracle of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death — it all washed over my new Easter suit and me in a sleep-deprived blur.
The only memory I have is actually a photo, taken during the balloon release that capped the Easter service of 1973. My mom is looking over her shoulder at the camera, a bright red balloon, ripe for release, trailing from her fingers. She wears a look of genuine, almost beatific joy, blissfully unaware that, in the bottom-right of the frame, our next door neighbors’ kid is about to get into an Alabama-Auburn based fistfight with Troy Glencoe, the only other junior varsity football player among our youth.
A Fountain Filled with Blood, then Breakfast
During Lent, the sullen great of a sun not yet risen sifts into every moment of life. We don’t use “Alleluia” in our worship. Every Sunday’s gospel reading brings Jesus closer and closer to the cross.
When Easter comes, it falls to us to cast off our dank pall of misery and join Jesus in a post-resurrection frolic among the tombs. But I guess some congregations just don’t understand that. After Sneedler’s Cove, but before Runcible, I preached a community sunrise service for three or four churches in the very rural hamlet of Bluetick Spinney.
I was expecting us to rise up, singing with some classic rip-roarers like, “Up from the grave he arooooooose! With a mighty triumph o’er his foes!,” or “Christ the Lord is risen todaaaaaay! Aaaaaaaaleiuuuuuuia!,” or “He walks with me anny talks with me…along life’s narrow waaaaaaay!”
There was no bulletin, so I didn’t know what to expect, but our opening hymn was “The Old Rugged Cross,” played at a dirge speed. I thought, “Well, okay, maybe that’s a curicifixion hymn to set a somber tone so we can break it with a resurrection hymn.” When our second hymn was “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” I thought, “Wow, they’re really working it with this somber tone thing.”
After hymn number three, “Are You Washed in the Blood?,” it was time for me to deliver my sermon, which included a congregational sing-along of “Singing’ in the Rain.”
After that, I hoped the song leader would cop a clue and maybe strike a glancing blow at the resurrection, or at least choose something that wasn’t about the crucifixion. Maybe “Amazing Grace” or “Rock of Ages,” or what about “Blessed Assurance?”
Nosirree. We chased the sermon with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and closed with “There Is a Fountain (Filled with Blood).”
Thus fortified, we headed for breakfast.
Other Easters I Lived
There’ve been other memorable Easters, too. Like the one that starte3d at 6:00 with sunrise, then breakfast, then worship, then Sunday school, then worship, and finally lunch, all without the use of my own car. Art some point a parishioner saw me pass out into my slice of pecan pie a la mode and drove me home.
Or the year that included an Easter bonnet contest, and the winner donned a duck decoy tied onto his head with a bathrobe sash.
And then there was that time during a low spot in my spiritual life, when I woke in the afternoon to the sound of giggling, slamming doors and squealing tires. Our girlfriends had let themselves into the bachelor pad I was sharing with a half-dozen guys for a drive-by Easter-basket-ing.
All That To Say
And so it was that I was set my alarm clock for 3:30 a.m., April 21, 2019. Dusky light still streaked in the air as I dozed off, determined to enjoy Easter morning no matter what.
It went well. The greatest challenge to my good spirits was having to spend twenty minutes in my office, tortured by the aroma of bacon frying in the fellowship hall kitchen.
I have spent a too-large portion of my life dreading, loathing and avoiding early morning Easter celebrations, but I think I am going to stop. I don’t want to be a wet blanket for those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed folks who see sunrise as the promise of a new day, not the dregs of a long night.
I will make a lenten vow to avoid any opportunities grousing, complaining, whining or sullenness, and, though the rules release me from my lenten privations at the crack of Easter’s dawn, I shall endeavor to maintain my good humor through the end of the day. Maybe even into the week.
But that’s just me talking. Your clergy may not see things that way. So, next Easter, if halfway through the 11:00 service, your pastor blanks on what year it is, or seems a little fuzzy on the Lord’s Prayer or dozes off in the middle of a baptism, please try to be understanding. It’s a lot of work, this resurrection business.
But Easter Sunday is a great joy — and it’s all worth it.