As a child, I remember getting up while it was still dark out on Easter morning in order to trundle to church with my mom, dad, and grumpy but compliant older sister. I was usually chipper after shaking off the the sleepyheaded effects of whatever I’d been dreaming through the night. Easter sunrise service in Ft. Wayne, Indiana was usually a brief but joyous affair often including liturgical arts not featured on other Sundays.
I remember one year Ann Slen did a fantastic ballet which culminated in tugging the dark shroud from the enormous wooden cross on the rearadox over the communion table. It was a dramatic moment ushering in the crescendo of Easter morning. A feast of visual motion which contrasted with the usual worship through one’s ears and mouth style that predominated.
For many years, we also had a balloon lift where each of us filled out a card that simply expressed the joy of Easter and asked it to be sent back to the church. We’d track where they went and whose went the furthest on a map over the next few months. I remember one year mine went all the way to Western Pennsylvania and was the furthest we ever had one go.
Somewhere in my seminary years, I became a night owl and my fervor for sunrises and sunrise worship waned accordingly. During my undergraduate years, the Wesley Foundation at Ball Stqate University held our Sunday services in the evening to take a pause before starting the new week of classes. And for the last 10 years or so, I’ve been attending worship services either at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries or Foundry UMC that are on Sunday evenings.
While some people find Sunday evening an odd time to worship, for me, it’s a natural fit. I spend the day Sunday relaxing, reading, watching TV programs, and catching up on whatever needs to be done. By evening, I’m in contemplative mode and worship fits into that nicely.
But what happens for Easter? The defining moment of the Christian faith was discovered at dawn and sunrise services have always been the ritualization of the discovery of the empty tomb. But there’s another story we often overlook at Easter.
On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him. He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast. The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?” He said to them, “What things?”
When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So, he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
Unlike the burst of joyous praise associated with Easter sunrise, the encounter outside Jerusalem on the Emmaus road is far more sedate. The disciples have spent the day hardly able to believe the stories shared by those who first ran from the tomb, but unable to deny them either. They find themselves exhausted, hungry, and scared as they leave a city that where it has become dangerous for them to linger. They ponder the meaning of these events, perhaps on the verge of writing them off as unbelievable in the face of pressing concerns of safety and survival. Until some man who has apparently been living in a hole for a few days asks, “What things?”
So, on yet another Easter sunset, I sit in church asking myself, “What things?”