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Time-Tested Traditions: Experiencing Easter Joy in a Moravian Cemetery

Every Sunday, and especially on the great festival days of the Christian year, preachers and worship planners search for ways to tell the old, old story in fresh new ways. On the other hand, many congregations cherish longstanding traditions such as a Christmas Eve candlelight service or an Easter sunrise service. Those services may include a few of the same elements year after year. I never tire of singing the great Wesley hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on Easter Sunday morning, though I think it would be a wonderful choice at some other times of the year as well, since every Sunday is a “little Easter.”

I doubt if any tradition has retained a complete service so exactly as the Moravians, who have celebrated the same Easter sunrise service for over two hundred years. Their tradition reaches back to John Huss, the great Czech reformer and martyr who lived a full century before Luther and Calvin. The service is a wonderfully rich celebration of the resurrection in Scripture, confession, and song. Every year up to twenty-five thousand worshipers (not only Moravians) gather very early on Easter Sunday morning in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This year, the Moravians in Salem celebrated the service again in July for the annual conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. That moving and memorable service (see p. 10) gave obvious and eloquent testimony to the strength of maintaining a wonderful tradition within a community of faith.

Perhaps your congregation could use a fresh approach to celebrating Easter. And perhaps you are looking for some practice that’s strong enough to bear repetition, that may even become a tradition. For such traditions and practices we can learn from the Moravians.

The Gospel Full-Strength

First, they stick to the basics. Any seekers (or those who seldom go to church but come on Easter) who attend this service get the gospel full-strength—strong and undiluted. Though there is no sermon, it is, in fact, a wordy service. The entire service is an exegesis of the meaning of the resurrection, a full, rich, eloquent proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of the Christian faith.

Stirring Music

Second, the music is stirring. Moravians are known for bands that play every Easter and for every funeral. Very early Easter Sunday—about 2:30 a.m.—up to 500 play ers gather from several congregations and divide into smaller bands to process through the town, announcing the resurrection and inviting everyone to the service, finally converging at the cemetery. The bands play chorale phrases antiphonally as they lead the people in procession; at the cemetery they lead everyone in song. Their focus is entirely on helping everyone celebrate the resurrection. My favorite visual memory is of one older woman who had just had hip surgery struggling to keep up, cane in one hand, trombone in the other, playing whenever the band stopped every hundred feet or so. A grandson was at her side playing his trumpet. The bands are very intergenerational; many players have been members for more than fifty years.

God’s Acre

Third, processing from the church to the cemetery and then standing among the graves, facing the rising sun, is profoundly moving. The cemetery is named “God’s Acre”—the place where we are sown in perishable bodies until that great day when Christ returns and we will be raised with bodies that are imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42). That hope forms the Moravian community; even in death, the sense of community is strong. They bury their dead according to their “choir” (unmarried men in one section, married in another; the same for women; widows, widowers and children are in a separate section). The gravestones are all identical in size—in Christ, we are all one. For a brief time, everyone who attends that service becomes part of that Moravian community. But as a community of faith, we are all united forever as we turn our backs on death and declare that Christ has conquered that final enemy.

All three of aspects of that memorable service—the strong and clear pronouncement of the resurrection, the stirring processional and singing, and, finally, celebrating together the communion of the saints in life and in death who will all one day be raised with Christ—called for worshipers’ active participation. We marched and sang from the church to the graves, we turned our backs on death, and we faced the rising sun, proclaiming together that Christ has conquered that final enemy.

You may or may not have a cemetery to march to. But whatever Easter tradition you seek to establish in your congregation, go for the heart of the

matter—the way the Moravians continue to do as they celebrate the resurrection in a way worthy of repetition every year.