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Easter service in cemetery reflects faith

The Baltimore Sun

St. Peter's Lutheran Church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus in a place most people associate with death.

Congregants planned to gather before dawn Easter morning inside the darkened sanctuary of the Fullerton church before walking with candles to the church's cemetery for a service led by the Rev. Mark Crispell. His makeshift altar: a tombstone.

Included in the service are hymns and Scripture readings, as the sun rises to illuminate the faithful - both the living and the dead.

For churches like St. Peter's, an Easter morning gathering in or near burial grounds emphasizes their belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation it represents.

"I think the symbolism of resurrection - life conquering death through Jesus Christ - for me, that's very powerful in a cemetery," said Crispell, who will be leading his 13th Easter sunrise service in St. Peter's graveyard.

"Christians ought not to be afraid of death. It's part of life with God," he said. "We are also affirming and celebrating the lives of those who are laid to rest there."

These cemetery gatherings are just one variation on the sunrise service, a dawn meeting that is common among Protestant congregations, said Bruce T. Morrill, a liturgical theologian at Boston College.

Roman Catholics as well as Eastern Orthodox Christians, who are also celebrating Easter today, generally observe an Easter vigil on Saturday night, the last of the Holy Week observances that began a week ago on Palm Sunday.

After the Protestant Reformation, church leaders from Calvinist and Baptist communities stripped the calendar of celebrations such as saints' days to focus worship on Sunday.

Early-morning services demonstrate that concentration, Morrill said.

"Sunrise then becomes the intense substitute for that kind of whole Holy Week phenomenon," he said. "It meets that kind of human need to symbolize the experience of death into life, or darkness into light."

Long tradition

American churches have held sunrise services since at least the 19th century, he said. Often, congregations meet near water or on mountaintops to get a good view of the rising sun, adapting their traditional services and incorporating dramatizations or other elements.

Some communities meet for ecumenical worship, such as the Easter sunrise service by Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, which draws as many as 200 people, or the one on the Ocean City boardwalk, which attracts up to 1,000.

Others meet in cemeteries. Though it's sometimes for practical reasons - a cemetery attached to a church can be a convenient outdoor space where congregants can gather and see the dawn's early light - the setting also provides a strong connection to faith.

Easter services in graveyards "are a powerful tying of the belief in Jesus' death as salvation to the faith of those people who are buried there. ... It really affirms and carries on the faith that in their death they looked forward to being raised again," Morrill said.

At 6:15 a.m. today, the Rev. Robert Wickizer plans to lead a procession from St. Anne's Church, an Episcopal parish in Annapolis, to the church cemetery on College Creek.

The congregation will stand through a 45-minute service, with Wickizer laying a linen cloth on a tombstone for a makeshift altar.

"It will be like a picnic, almost," he said.

"In the Anglican Communion, we believe strongly in the communion of saints," Wickizer said. "It's a reminder of mortality and the fact that death is not the last word.

"It's a great place to set that kind of expression of theology."

Wickizer said he doesn't lead these services out of morbid curiosity. "It's about the reminder that redemption is more than just about me, more than just about God and me.

"People who came before us are saved, and the people after us, too."

From the Gospels

Pastors also drew a connection to the Easter-morning accounts in the Gospels, which describe women visiting the tomb of Jesus.

"It's kind of like celebrating the very first rays of Easter Sunday, to go and remember the fact that they found the tomb empty," said the Rev. Nicholas Brie, pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Taneytown.

Since 2003, he has offered a sunrise service in the church's graveyard, which dates to the mid-1700s. Brie said the cemetery offers "this fantastic view of the sun when it comes up," with the nearby mountains in western Maryland. The church's youth typically participate with a sermon or a dramatization, he said, one year even acting out discovery of an empty tomb.

The Rev. John Nupp will be leading an indoor sunrise worship service at Ellicott City's Glenmar United Methodist Church this year, but in past years he has led gatherings at a church in Monkton in a prayer garden overlooking its cemetery.

"There's a real natural theological connection, having it in a place where for a lot of people it would trigger memories of grieving or loss or death," he said.

"The good news is that Christ is victorious over all those kinds of losses, that God's love endures over death, in spite of the worst that the world can throw at us."

The "new life" of Easter also connects with the new life that emerges in the spring, Morrill said. "In a way, the sunrise service really taps into Easter as both a Christian feast and Easter as a springtime festival," he said.

Nupp agreed. "In the garden of Eden we lost our relationship with God, and [Easter] is really a reversal of that," he said.

"Here you are in the midst of spring and you're seeing like a foreshadowing or first glimpse of Eden."

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