Photo courtesy of Salem Congregation
'The Lord is risen!'
The Moravian Easter sunrise service in Winston-Salem, N.C., is a public event featuring a brass band and thousands of worshippers. It is steeped in a 240-year-old, deeply theological tradition that shapes each new generation.
April 3, 2012 | More than 6,500 people stand in the early-morning darkness, waiting to hear the news. The first ones showed up before 3 a.m. An hour before first light, people are still streaming in, filling the square in front of the old church and spilling over into the streets.
As the church bell rings, the buzz of hushed conversations stops. In the stillness, all eyes are focused on the church door.
Silhouetted in the glare of lights, a figure emerges, walks to a small podium and makes the announcement:
“The Lord is risen!”
And from the darkness, the thousands answer back as one:
“The Lord is risen indeed!”
It’s a classic and timeless scene that was and is and will be again -- the start of the Moravian Easter sunrise service in historic Old Salem, N.C. On Sunday morning, it will play out again, for the 240th time, much as it did for the first time in 1773.
One of the oldest and best-known Easter sunrise services in the nation, the event has shaped and formed Moravian life and witness throughout Winston-Salem and the region. The sunrise service is a powerful tradition passed down from generation to generation, knitting together old and young, the living and the dead, individual congregations, and Moravians and the surrounding community.
“It’s a big part of Moravian identity,” said the Rev. Scott Venable, pastor of Fairview Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. “Moravians are called ‘Easter people’ primarily because of this service. It becomes part of who you are, and you pass it on.”
‘From Christ and Christ alone’
First performed in Germany in 1732, the Moravian Easter sunrise service is an important part of the liturgical life of the Moravians, a small denomination with only 41,000 members in the United States and Canada and 800,000 members worldwide.
But they are a significant presence in the Winston-Salem region: Salem, which merged with Winston in 1913, was founded as a Moravian missionary settlement in 1766. According to data from 2000, Moravians are the third-largest denomination in the county, behind Southern Baptists and United Methodists, with 32 congregations and 13,500 members.
Questions to consider:
- What experiences does your congregation offer to the community? How might you offer something in which people can walk, smell or taste dimensions of the story of God’s love?
- In what roles do you train children to serve? How do adults bring young people alongside in ministry?
- The experiential, intergenerational aspects of grave cleaning and breakfast preparations are some of the key elements of the Moravian Easter service. What activities of your community could become intergenerational?
- What are the theological convictions that inform the big things that your congregation does each year? What are the Christian practices taught through your big events?
Known collectively as the Salem Congregation, 13 of those churches -- the original Home Moravian Church and 12 congregations that it spawned -- sponsor the Easter service in Old Salem.
Whether in Bethlehem, Pa., or Tanzania -- where 600,000 Moravians live -- or anywhere else, the Moravian Easter service is a simple and reverent affair, rich in theological meaning, said the Rev. John Jackman, pastor of Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem and chair of the Salem Congregation Central Board of Elders.
“It is the concrete expression of Moravian theology,” said Jackman, who will preside at this year’s service. “It is about the hope of resurrection, the sacrifice of Christ, the theology of grace and the belief that from Christ and Christ alone everything is given to us.”
At 2 a.m., hours before the formal service begins, brass bands -- a feature of every Moravian congregation -- fan out through Winston-Salem, playing chorales such as the aptly named “Sleepers, Wake.” The bands reconvene at Home Moravian Church for breakfast around 5 a.m., after which the service begins, 35 to 45 minutes before sunrise.
The first part of the service, which takes place just outside Home church, is a liturgical reading, essentially a Moravian confession of faith, interspersed with hymns.
The Rev. Patricia Garner, who served as chair of the congregational board in 2010, was the first woman to preside at the service and calls it one of the highlights of her years in ministry.
That simple opening line -- “The Lord is risen!” -- was probably the most rehearsed line of any sermon or liturgy she ever delivered, she said. For days, she agonized over how to say it, which word to emphasize.
Should it be, “The Lord is risen?”
“The Lord is risen?”
“The Lord is risen?”
“If you only had one chance to proclaim your faith, how would you proclaim it?” she said. “When that door opens, the entire crowd gets silent, and the only thing you can hear is a few birds chirping. But when you’re out there, the words come and you just proclaim it.”
After the first part of the service, which lasts 10 to 15 minutes, the crowd processes up the street to the Moravian cemetery, called -- as are all Moravian graveyards -- God’s Acre. Even with 200 ushers helping to move the crowd along, it takes about 45 minutes for the throng to move those three blocks and reassemble in the cemetery.
As the crowd walks quietly, a half-dozen or more brass bands, strategically placed around Old Salem, play a series of hymns, antiphonally. One band will play a line, another across the way will respond with the second line, and so on, delivering a historic version of “surround sound.”
While the crowd slowly makes its way, the bands move as well, converging from every direction, playing as they go, joining together in the graveyard and forming one giant brass band of 350 members or more.
Once everyone is gathered in God’s Acre, the service resumes with a series of exuberant hymns and short prayers. If the organizers have timed it just right and the weather cooperates, the sun is rising as the service moves to its conclusion. Morning light streams across the cemetery, illuminating graves that have been decorated with flowers the day before.
It is an extraordinary and profoundly moving experience, Garner said.
“We have walked through the darkness of the shadow of Christ’s death and into this light,” Garner said.