Easter time…Moravian style
Blog by Beth Wall
All around the country people are preparing for their Easter celebrations. For many that includes attending a service, some new clothes, an egg hunt, and a family dinner. For a few, Easter includes a trip to God’s Acre to clean and decorate family headstones. For some, Easter includes hauling a tuba around town to play by the headlights of a bus or a lone streetlight in the wee hours of Easter Sunday morning.
In Winston-Salem, the Moravian Easter Sunrise service has been held with its conclusion in God’s Acre since 1771. (Note: In 1772, rain prevented the conclusion of the service in the graveyard). As written on the back of the April 7, 1996 Service program “[i]t is in no sense one of spectacular appeal or pageantry, but is held as a service of true worship, centering attention on the great underlying fact of the Christian Faith, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ”. The service is sponsored by the Churches of the Salem Congregation, which includes Ardmore, Bethesda, Calvary, Christ, Fairview, Fries Memorial, Home, Immanuel-New Eden, Konnoak Hills, Messiah, Pine Chapel, and Trinity.
The service traces its roots back to Herrnhut. In 1732, on the Saturday evening before Easter during a young men’s devotional meeting, one young man suggested going to the graveyard at dawn on Easter Sunday to sing hymns and to meditate on Christ’s death and resurrection. The next morning after acting on the suggestion, the group of young men came to a deeper appreciation of the resurrection truth. They reported back to the congregation the strengthening of spirit that had come from the simple sunrise service and suggested that the entire congregation do likewise on the next Easter.
For most folks in attendance, the Winston-Salem service begins at 6am just outside of Home Moravian Church on Salem Square and includes spoken reaffirmations of the Christian faith and hymn singing. For band members, however, their service begins several weeks prior to Easter with Sunday afternoon rehearsals of the program. On Easter Sunday, their service begins around 1:30am. There are, currently on roll, 302 members of the Winston-Salem Easter band — an attendance up from the 6 members participating in the early years. Participation is not limited to musicians from Winston-Salem area Moravian churches, nor is it limited strictly to Moravians. Many members of the Easter band are from outside of Winston-Salem, and even outside of North Carolina. There are six separate bands at Easter and each plays at a different location around town. At each location, the first chorale played is “Sleepers, Wake!” The first chorale played at the 6am service is Covenant (185 A) with the congregation singing Hail, All Hail, Victorious Lord and Savior.
At about 4:30am, before the start of the service, the six individual bands gather back at Home Moravian Church after their rounds around town to sit down for a hot breakfast together and to share stories of their early morning adventures.
The band plays regardless of the weather, whether it is fair or foul. Band member Bart Collins recalls his first Easter with the band in 1975. He says that was the coldest he had ever been. On top of the cold was a pouring, drenching rain. After every chorale, he had to tip his tuba over to dump the rainwater out of it. This year’s weather looks to be neither the best nor the worst. The forecast calls for temperatures to be just above freezing on Sunday morning, but clear with very little chance for rain. The late-March/early-April weather in the South allows for outdoors Sunrise Services, but snow and freezing conditions keep that from happening in other locales. Not every Moravian church has a Sunrise Service at its graveyard.
Two-thirds through the liturgy, the service at the steps of Home Moravian Church is concluded and all present walk down to God’s Acre for the sunrise. The bands, scattered between Salem Square and the entrance to God’s Acre, continue to play chorales. Some tunes are played antiphonally (“call and answer”). With today’s technology, the coordination of this is done via headset between the leaders of each band. The bands then join together to form one large band of musicians the conclusion of the service. After those gathered sing the last hymn, Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, the band plays the final chorale of the service, Worship (159 A), We in One Covenant Are Joined.
Some band members return to their home churches to play for their 11am services. Some band members drag themselves home to recover and nap for the rest of the day. Everyone looks forward to the next year when they’ll do it all over again as they have been for 235 years in Salem.