Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sunrise Service

It was still dark when Momma would open my door and sing-song "Happy Easter" from the light beaming in the hall. It didn't matter how old I was, I knew that the Easter Bunny had come to visit. Our Easter Bunny always knew what you needed, whether it was a new swimsuit or a basket of cheese (because you gave it up for Lent). My sister and I would pour over our Easter baskets and fill our pockets with jelly beans or tootsie rolls so we would have a stash to nibble on in worship.

There wouldn't be a lot of time to explore the goodies in our baskets because we would need to venture across the street for worship soon. We wouldn't dress up, we would dress warm. We'd walk into the dawn that was just beginning to turn from gray to blue and cross Beatties Ford Road. We climbed up the stairs of the rock wall and headed toward the old gate of the cemetery right where we left off on Friday. 

The flicker of the flames in the fire pit lapped warm beams of light on the faces of folks who were starting to gather in a circle. Daddy would stand near the fire, pacing, beaming, teasing people. I liked to stand on the "upping block" that was left behind from the days when ladies would ride their horses to Hopewell and needed a little extra boost so as not to disturb their skirts as they mounted their steeds. From the upping block I could see everyone's faces and watch closely what Daddy would do once he felt like everyone was ready.

"At the crack of dawn on the first day of the week, the women took their spices and went to the tomb to try and anoint Jesus's body since they were not able to do it during the Sabbath after he was killed. But when they arrived the stone was rolled away! They went inside and saw that Jesus's body was not there. Only his folded burial clothes were left behind. Then two men appeared in gleaming white robes and said, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? The one you are looking for is not here, he has risen just as he told you he would back when you were in Galilee." The women were overjoyed and ran all the way back to the place where the Disciples were hiding and told them the news. When Peter heard it, he and another Disciple ran as fast as they could to the tomb and saw for themselves that Jesus was not there. He had risen!"

At this point, Daddy would have pulled out that purple crown royal sack that was packed tightly with our sins from Good Friday. He would hold it over the fire and look around the crowd, "For God loved us so much that he sent his son to make the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ has risen, indeed! Our sins are forgiven and we are made new! This is the good news of the Gospel!" And with that, he would open the bag and let our sins drop right into the flames. We would watch them burn to ash. These ashes would be collected after worship when they cooled and would be used on Ash Wednesday next Lent, so that Daddy could rub them into our foreheads in the shape of a cross saying, "From the dust you were made and to the dust you will return."

When our sins had smoldered, we would hear the organ begin to play inside and we would enter the Sanctuary in joyful song! "Jesus Christ has risen today, Hallelujah!" As we would step inside, we would pick up a Easter Lily and take it with us into the pew. The whole room smelled pungently of pure heaven as the lilies of the valley seemed to march into the Sanctuary with us.

Dad would start at  "in the Beginning" and retell the story of God creating the Earth. After He made Adam and Eve and it was evening and it was morning the 7th day, we would sing, "Morning has broken." The children and the Deacons would be invited to restore the Sanctuary. Hastily and with so much excitement, the children would run to the back room where all the vestments of the church were stored and would return with the symbols of God's presence in the world. Baptismal font, Bible, Candles, golden cross, etc, etc. Dad would dramatically whip off the black cloth that was draped over the ceder cross now standing in the Sanctuary and exclaim, "Christ is risen! Christ is Risen indeed! Hallelujah!" I always remember this point as the moment when our congregation would explode into cheers, but I know none of us actually cheered aloud. We, after all, are Presbyterians. It felt like we were cheering, though.

The nails and the crown of thorns that were so ominously placed on the baptismal font would be removed and in their positions would be a pitcher of water and a bowl. The Deacons would fling open the shutters and the new light of morning would bring the whole Sanctuary to life. The congregation would move all around the room placing their Easter Lillie's on plastic plates that were laid on anything that would stand still. In a matter of moments, the dark tomb of the worship space would be awash with lilies, colors, hugging people, smiling faces and vibrant organ songs of celebration.

When the church was restored, not just to it's former beauty but to a vastly more perfect version of itself, we would return to our seats so that Daddy could recount the ways that God had been telling us that he would send his love to us like this. He would remind us of Abraham not sacrificing Issac but being willing to, of Moses in the Dessert, of the Promised Land, of the prophet's who spoke of Christ's coming, of Jesus's birth and life and the new life that we have been given because of His great love. After each scriptural memory, we would sing a hymn and I'd frequently pop a few jelly beans into my mouth just to savor the sweetness of the moment a little bit more.

When worship was nearly over, Dad would invite the whole congregation to the Fellowship Hall (gym) to enjoy a big, country breakfast that the Deacons had made (they made food from scratch, the right way- it was something to look forward to). One year from the pulpit, Daddy accidentally invited us all to eat the meal that the "Demons" had prepared. We still laugh about that. 

The congregation never did look tired on those very early mornings. As the service commenced the opposite seemed to occur; folks would brighten and loosen up as if the good news of God's great love was actually sinking in and warming them to life from the inside out. 

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