Our seven-month old corgi Bovina, one of the greatest joys of Jeanne’s and my life, has developed a routine for greeting the sun as it peeks its head over our back fence each morning. The first morning rays reflect off our back storm door; if someone moves the door back and forth, the reflection moves along the side and back fence. Everyone rises before the sun gets up at our house—Bovina immediately insists on going into the back yard and occasionally barking until the sun rises, then barking even more until an accommodating parent moves the door so she can joyously and noisily chase the reflection. She gives new meaning to “I will sing and give praise . . . I will awaken the dawn” from Psalm 57.
Bovina’s routine reminds me of my family’s “Sunrise Service” routine every Easter morning. The heartier members of our small Baptist church would gather a half hour or so before sunrise at the home of a family whose house was on a ridge over looking the small valley in which our Vermont town is located. Looking east across the valley from their back yard, I could see the two ski areas where I had spent every free winter moment over the past months, even when the temperature was well below zero.
Speaking of which, the temperature on a dim late March to mid-April early morning awaiting the sun was never warm either. It not only was a “sunrise” service, but it was also a “freeze-your-ass-off service.” As sunrise time approached, the pastor would read from one of the gospel accounts of early Easter morning, seeking to hit “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” or “Woman, why are you weeping,” depending on the gospel being read, just as the sun peeked it’s head over Burke Mountain to the east. Of course, there were some Easters when it was raining and I remember at least one when it was snowing—on those occasions we did our business in the living room looking out the glass doors and windows toward the east. We were all hardy New Englanders, but hardiness has its limits.
I am a morning person, so I’ll take sunrise over sunset any day. I’ve experienced many sunrises over the years walking onto my college’s beautiful campus headed to my office or the gym. But the most memorable sunrise I ever experienced was in my early teens when my father, my older brother, and I visited the Grand Canyon. From Mather Point (or one of the other South Rim points—I forget which one) we gathered with a few dozen other folks to await the dawn. There was no sound other than the breeze.
Until, that is, a three- or four-year-old ran screaming through the group delighted by something or other. SSSSHHHHH! the child’s parents and everyone else immediately said, just as they would probably do if the kid had run up and down an aisle in church making the same racket. The sunrise a few minutes later was a sacred event—we were all standing on holy ground.
I like the Psalmist’s claim that “I will awaken the dawn” from Psalm 57. It implies that the dawn is more than just a product of physical laws and forces—we have something to do with it. Of course, the sun rises every morning whether anyone is watching or not, but we have the capacity to participate in its meaning and value. Certainly, the stories of those who encountered an empty tomb, then experienced the resurrected Jesus on that first Easter morning make the event that much more poignant and sacred. The family, friends, and followers of Jesus thought everything was over. But as Zerah in Jesus of Nazareth says when looking into the empty tomb, “Now it begins.”
It is so easy to forget the pain and suffering that led to the resurrection. But pain, suffering, and death remain a part of human experience and reality. And yet . . . everything has changed. Simone Weil expresses this beautifully in her essay “The Love of God and Affliction,” the passage with which I closed my book on Simone Weil a number of years ago.
They alone will see God who prefer to recognize the truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says: “He is risen.”