Rise and shine, American Evangelicals

Sunrise reflection.jpgFirst of all, I hope this is a blessed Easter for all of the Western Christians in our readership.

It is another month until Pascha for those of us in Eastern Orthodoxy and this wide gap between the two dates is going to be more common in the future. But that is not the story for today.

No, I want to join the Los Angeles Times in asking American Protestants this question: What time did you get up this morning? Or, if you are in a liturgical church, what time did you get to bed last night or this morning? And did the timing of your alarm clock have anything to do with something called “church tradition” or even “Church Tradition”?

I ask this, because reporter Natasha Lee has taken a lighthearted, but at times disturbing, look inside the fading “tradition” of Protestant churches assembling for sunrise Easter services. The headline was nifty: “More Worshipers Pulling the Shades on Sunrise Service.”

The bottom line is the bottom line: If people don’t want to get up early, and the goal is to gather the largest number of people in the pews (or whatever), then what is the argument in favor of a service at any particular time on the clockface? In the “free church” tradition, what authority is there for any issue in worship?

This is a news story about liturgical majority rule and, to quote G.K. Chesterton, the saints do not have the right to vote. Here is a sample of Lee’s story:

While some Christian churches still faithfully hold sunrise services on Easter, the popularity of such events has waned among younger people and families with children who are reluctant to get out of bed that early.

Traditionally a Protestant practice, sunrise services are held just before dawn in honor of Christ rising from the dead after the crucifixion.

Many Southern California churches prefer to hold outdoor services because darkness turning into daylight is symbolic of Christ shedding his physical body to take on a spiritual form. The image of dawn is significant in Christian theology because it signals the end of the dark days surrounding the crucifixion, said Eddie Gibbs, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

The story only briefly notes that Roman Catholics rarely attend such services. The unasked question is “Why?” Where are they?

It would be interesting to know if Lee realized that there is another story haunting this one. If Protestant sunrise Easter services are fading, many liturgical churches — East and West — are struggling to inspire their people to take part in the truly ancient traditions linked to the Easter or Pascha vigil that begins in the middle of the night, with midnight as the moment when the rites kick into high gear. The breaking-the-fast feast that follows is one of the high points of the Orthodox year. But what if people don’t want to stay up that late?

Meanwhile, it does seem that more evangelical churches are simply putting this Easter issue up to a vote. Others may try to do a better job of marketing these sunrise services. Check out the wonderful section of Lee’s story about the “Espresso Yourself” rites at one church.

This is a fine story, even if it is incomplete. Perhaps Lee can return to this topic in a month, at Pascha.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • david wayne

    I belong to a small Protestant/evangelical community with a strong ethnic base. I participate in the worship committee of my congregation, and I agree, we (including me) are not interested in the sunrise service.

    My attitude is this: If we will not accept the spiritual obligations to keep the ancient traditions of the catholic church (east or west), why should we bother with the ersatz traditions of evangelicalism?

    Yes, I would like something more, but it must arise out of the life of the community as a (super-) natural emergence of new spiritual life.

  • wjc3

    We were up at 0430 Sunday morning, but that was an effort to make 0730 mass (Roman Catholic) with the in-laws. The congregation is large for Southern California: the church seats 1100 and offers 9(?) services on a normal Sunday, most of which are full. No sunrise service was offered.

    Midnight mass is offered (and *very* popular) at this parish for Christmas, leading me to believe the hour is not much of an impediment. I think the very urban setting, however, makes an outdoor sunrise service less appealing, and if the sunrise service isn’t outdoors what is the point of it being a *sunrise* service?


  • http://www.clientandserver.com dw

    Funny thing is, we actually added a 7:15 service on Easter Sunday morning to handle the demand, and it was pretty well attended — 150 or so from what I heard, about 2/3rds of the sanctuary filled.

    Mind you, that doesn’t compare with the thank-God-the-fire-inspector-is-off-on-Sunday attendance we had at the other two services (around 400 per in a sanctuary that holds 325), but it’s still pretty substantial, and was higher than the normal evening service attendance (usually 50-75).

    We’re not a normal evangelical PC(USA) church, though. You find a lot of Democrats and liberals in the pews, a lot more than you’d find down the hill and across the bridge at Mars Hill, the new “hip” mega-church for the twentysomething crowd. Social views are all over the map. Yet, this is a congregation that has seen Jesus and speaks profoundly of encountering God.

    Of course, there are those on here that would brand us as a bunch of wishy-washy liberals. Mars Hill said as much a couple of years ago. Same God, same belief in Jesus Christ, same belief in the ever-present work of the Holy Spirit, and yet just a bunch of Kerry voters. Sad.

  • http://showard1.blogspot.com Samuel J. Howard

    Unfortunately, what you’ve written above about the Western liturgical churches is not entirely accurate. The first celebration of Easter,
    the Easter Vigil, may in the Roman Catholic Church occur anytime “after nightfall”, not at Midnight.

    The liturgy committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has suggested that this should be read as “after the time in the evening when daylight is last visible”, roughly, “astronomical twilight… the time after which ‘the sun does not contribute to sky illumination’”

    This year on Gregorian Easter, astronomical twilight in New York City, where I live, was 7:49 P.M. Catholic Easter Vigil services could (licitly) start anytime after that.

    The Easter Vigil must also conclude in darkness.

    There may also be more than one mass for the day of Easter itself. I don’t have a Sacramentary handy.


  • http://bunniediehl.worldmagblog.com Bunnie

    My Lutheran congregation had a beautiful Easter vigil that began after sunset on Saturday.

    We’ve been doing this for as long as I remember and each year it has increasing attendance.

    The Easter vigil is also when we baptize catechumens and remember baptisms from previous Easter vigils.

    It is one of the best services of the year.

    We do matins early on Easter monring with a Divine Service at the normal hour. Our pastor flat out tells us that if we are going to attend one service on Easter morning, it should be the Divine Service where we receive the Sacrament. Of course, we’re encouraged to attend both.

  • http://reader.classicalanglican.net confessing reader

    darkness turning into daylight is symbolic of Christ shedding his physical body to take on a spiritual form

    Nice to know that the Gnostics are carrying the banner for sunrise services now.

    In The Episcopal Church the Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated “at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 284). While I know of Episcopal parishes that celebrate the Easter Vigil in the darkness just before the rising of the sun, so as to be celebrating the eucharist when the sun rises, it is the practice of our parish and of most parishes with which I am familiar, to celebrate the Vigil in the darkness after sunset on Easter Eve (it must be dark enough for the new fire to flare in the darkness).

    The Vigil is truly the central liturgy in our parish life. Several hundred people attend, we baptize our catechumens and children (the most baptisms we had at a Vigil was about twenty, including nine adults and several older children), and the liturgy lasts about three hours (yes, I know, that’s bush league to you Orthodox folks!). In all modesty, our bishops have sometimes even asked to preside at our Easter Vigil, we’ve gotten such a reputation.

    (Unfortunately, the presence of Bishop Curry at this year’s Vigil meant that our family did not attend, given his schismatic actions in the current Anglican crisis.)

    A note to the Lutheran poster: I very much like the idea of Matins and the Eucharist on Easter Morning. That would even be something of a recovery of a venerable Anglican Sunday morning tradition of Morning Prayer, Litany, and Holy Communion.

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