The Easter Sunrise service like the late Christmas Eve service are among my favorite services all year. There are many reasons why I like the services. Partly, because they feel more intimate, but there is something else; they are not services of convenience or routine. Actually, it is a struggle for me to get going and be fully awake at 6:30 in the morning! But something happens every year standing outside with the morning chill with out distraction or really anything other than celebrating God.
The roots of the sunrise celebration go back to the earliest Christians. As we know, Easter is really the only unique Christian holiday that goes back to the first converts. While it follows the Passover celebration and has other Jewish influences, it is the celebration of the resurrection and bears witness to the divinity of Christ and God’s salvation of all humankind.
In the early church, the Service of the Resurrection was a key moment for new believers because they would pray all Saturday night and be baptized Sunday Morning. The Easter Vigil is a direct descendant of that practice. The Easter Vigil takes the story or Christ and through song, meditation, prayer and worship brings individuals to a deeper understanding of Christ. A great example of this can be seen at St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Episcopal church who holds their Easter Vigil on April 19 from 8:00 PM.
Through church history that vigil started at various times, moving at one point all of the way to sunrise on Holy Saturday! But by the middle ages the practice solidified into much of what we see today. The baptisms started to be done at different times, and we were left with large Easter celebrations. Now I have to say I have nothing against a large Easter celebration! I love that service too, but for very different reasons.
In the reformed tradition, there was a general de-emphasis on Holy Days. This is because we take a more general understanding that the resurrection is at the core of everything that we teach and preach, so while some elements and certain pageantry continued, some of these special practices were lost. Recently (I’m talking now over the past 50 or so years) we have begun to rediscover some of the lost services, recognizing that they are important, as well as creating new traditions out of the old, like the sunrise service.
OK, so some may see it as a enjoying the celebration of Easter without the work and penitence of the vigil, but in a very real way it is about seeing Easter in a fresh and new way. When those who were new to the faith were baptized on Easter, they understood that their life would be starting anew, just as the day was starting fresh. When we come to a sunrise service, we pay tribute to the prayers and vigil, but most importantly, we reflectively look at ourselves and ask how committed we are to our lives with Christ.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen