by JoAnn Skousen
The rising sun has long been a symbol of faith and hope, reaching back to pagan times when it was worshiped as a god. The sun brought light, warmth, nourishment, and most of all, reassurance that life would continue. “I know this as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow” is a familiar declaration of confidence.
Just as Christmas Eve is often celebrated with a midnight mass, Easter morning in most Christian congregations begins with a sunrise service. But not this year, when public gatherings, even for outdoor events, have been banned.
Why do Christians watch the sun rise on Easter?
The practice is a reminder of the faithfulness of the women who had loved Jesus and followed him throughout his ministry. When Jesus died, the Sabbath was only minutes away. His disciples had barely enough time to wrap his body in a clean linen cloth and lay it hastily in the nearby tomb owned by a disciple, Joseph of Arimethea, before the sun went down and the Sabbath began. The women who loved him would have to wait, grieving, through the long lonely hours of the night, before they would be able to wash away the blood and dirt and anoint His body properly with funeral spices and herbs. Those herbs included myrrh, which had been one of the gifts of the magi, symbolizing his death.
The women waited respectfully in the shadows of the garden until the sun broke through the darkness. Then they hurried forward to begin their final act of sacred service.
Similarly, Christians rise in darkness to watch the sun rise each Easter morning. It is an act of devotion and gratitude, and commemorates the loving service of these women disciples.
Our first experience with a sunrise service was less than inspiring, however.
Sunrise services had not been a part of our Easter tradition, but when our youngest daughter was attending preschool at the local Methodist School for Early Education, we decided to give it a try. We woke our children at 5 am, dressed them in their Sunday finest, and drove them to the church. The air was moist as we stood on the shore of the nearby lake, waiting for the service to begin. Our children were fidgety from standing and itchy from the damp grass sticking to their ankles. We had not prepared them for the event but simply dragged them to the shore and expected them to “get” it. A choir sang. A minister spoke. The sun rose. We went home. It was barely 7 am with all of Sunday stretching before us. Our kids were cranky all day. I was disappointed. Why hadn’t I felt uplifted by the experience?
Too often we go to a worship service expecting to be inspired or uplifted when we haven’t prepared. We take a passive approach, expecting to be moved without actually moving. We want to be spiritually fed, but what we really need is to partake of the spirit—to reach out actively and participate in the event. The choir hadn’t failed, and the minister hadn’t failed. The sun hadn’t failed, and certainly Christ hadn’t failed. I had failed. I had been an observer, not a participant. Simply attending a service was not the same as worship.
I learned from that experience the importance of preparation. We experienced many wonderful sunrise services as a family after that, but not in formal services. Instead, during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, I would read the story in the four Gospels and contemplate the events of the Savior’s final earthly days. I set my alarm for 20 minutes before sunrise on Easter morning and then, donning our robes and slippers, Mark and I would gently wake our children, wrap each of them in a comforter—a symbol of the Savior’s spirit, incidentally—and guide them quietly through the dark house out the back door and down the slope to the lake behind our house. We helped them into our boat and motored quietly to the center of the lake, where we listened to soft sacred music and nibbled on strawberries while we waited for the sun to rise. Birds chirped their wake-up songs, and occasionally a fish would splash out o the water. It was peaceful, cozy, and deeply spiritual.
Quietly I would remind the children why we rise so early on Easter to celebrate the sunrise. Jesus’s body had hung from the cross for six agonizing hours. Usually a person was crucified by being tied to the cross with ropes, and the body’s weight would put pressure on the chest, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. For a while they would push up on the board nailed below the feet to take a breath, but as exhaustion set in, they gave up and suffocated. But Jesus’s tormentors had driven nails through his hands and then through his wrists and feet. It must have been excruciating as he hung there for six staggering, agonizing hours.
I would remind them of the respect his followers had for the Sabbath, observing it as a day of rest even though Jesus’s body lay in the tomb without being properly prepared. But they were determined not to let his body wait one minute longer than necessary. As the sun broke through the darkness, they hurried to their work. But his body was not there. He had risen.
I always ended these family sunrise services by reading my favorite chapter in all the scriptures, John 20, which describes Mary Magdalene’s experience at the tomb. I have read it aloud more than a hundred times in my life, yet I can never get through it without a catch in my throat when Jesus calls Mary by name. I urge you to read it today.
On those Easter mornings when our children were young, we would stay in our boat a bit longer, listening to the birds call to each other their wake up songs. Then we would motor to the dock, the children would troop back upstairs for another hour or so of sleep, and Easter bunny would arrive to do his business. Our hearts were full, because the Son arose.