On Easter Sunday morning, many United Methodists will rise before the sun to attend a sunrise worship service. Easter sunrise worship services take a variety of forms, but all have one thing in common—the people gather early in the morning to worship our resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The gospel writers tell us that Mary Magdalene and some of Jesus' other female followers went to his tomb early in the morning Sunday morning. They went to grieve and to tend to Jesus' body, as was the custom at the time.
When they arrived, they found the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. Later, they would learn that Jesus, who was crucified, is alive.
Coming to worship on Easter Sunday at an hour and place different than we normally do, offers a sense that something unexpected has happened. Where there appeared to be no hope, there is now hope. Where there was death, there is now resurrection!
First recorded sunrise service
The first recorded Easter sunrise service was an impromptu gathering in Herrnhut, Germany. Early on Easter morning 1732, a small group of young Moravian men went to the local cemetery for a special time of worship.
The next year, the group invited their entire congregation to join them, and a tradition was born. Within a few years, Easter sunrise worship was a staple of Moravian congregations.
The small group was known as a band, a term the early Methodist movement also used. The first Methodists and the Moravians shared some connections. John Wesley was impressed with the calm faith displayed by a group of Moravian missionaries during a storm on their journey from England to Georgia. Later, Wesley would befriend the leader of the Moravians, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf.
Zinzendorf would later say the Easter sunrise service was rooted in the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was probably referring to Easter vigils held through the night on Easter Saturday, and immediately followed by Easter worship.
Sunrise worship symbols
The cemetery was an important part of that first gathering. As the women went to the tomb on the first Easter Sunday, these celebrations happened at the graves of the faithful. Some of the early worship services included a time of caring for the cemetery grounds.
While a cemetery may seem to be a morbid place for worship, it serves to remind the congregation that Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection of the faithful still to come (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
If possible, congregations will gather facing east to watch the sunrise. With the coming of a new day, and especially during the early days of Spring, we are reminded of new life.
Some will remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV). Sometimes the world around us can seem very dark, but in Christ we have a light of hope, the very presence of God in the midst of us.
Find a service near you
Today, United Methodists gather in a variety of places. Some outside and others indoors. Some will bring lawn chairs to a nearby beach. Others will bundle up and gather around a fire to counter the cold of the morning. Still others will enter their church's sanctuary for a special worship experience.
Wherever the faithful come together, we gather in the presence of God, to celebrate and give thanks for the gift of our resurrected Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If you would like to attend a sunrise worship service in your area, use Find-A-Church to locate a United Methodist congregation near you.
This feature was originally published March 18, 2016.