On this Easter Monday, I am reflecting about a particular Easter that I experienced years ago. It was an Easter Sunday that I have spoken about many times and also have written about, but this year there is another layer of reflection that is speaking to my heart. I am reflecting on the Easter, my senior year in high school, when I was an honorary Moravian for their Easter celebrations.
Many of you know that I grew up in North Carolina, close to Winston-Salem, for some of my childhood years. Winston-Salem is the site of the Home Moravian Church, which is located in the historic, restored town of Salem. Salem was the site of countless school field trips, from elementary school all the way through college to discover history, life in the 1700’s, and the rich heritage of Moravian music.
It is said that Moravian children are born with instruments in their hands and while we all know that this is not true, the statement does indicate the importance of music for this community and how it is important that each community member learn to play an instrument and make music.
The Moravian celebration of Easter is quite unique and employs the use of great music. Early in the morning of Easter, around two am, Moravian bands move throughout the community playing music, usually Bach chorales. Think Christmas caroling, in the wee hours of the morning, with band instruments. The idea is that the news of Christ is risen is too great of news to remain asleep, but that we must jump up from sleep and proclaim the news so that the world can hear. Essentially the music called the faithful to worship.
When I was in high school, the Moravian Church where I lived was quite small and usually asked high school band members to help in carrying out this tradition. My senior year, several of my friends, were a part of this unique experience. So, in the wee hours of the morning, this small band of Moravian church members and high school band members set out to proclaim “Christ is risen!” We went to several places in our community, stood out under the street lamps or on the edge of lawns and played the gorgeous harmonies of Bach Easter chorales.
Now, I must admit that band music on the street corner in the wee hours of the morning is not always well received by community members or dogs. But we persisted and by the time we were finished I was quite taken with the tradition. Even the chill in the air did not bother me as the morning went on and we played more and more. Finally, we headed back to the church for breakfast, complete with my longtime favorite treat from childhood—Moravian sugar cake.
Breakfast ended as the sky was beginning to get light and that was the cue to walk to the cemetery and welcome the Easter morning and proclaim that Christ is risen! So, the whole company of believers moved to the outside, one band in the front and one band in the back, playing back and forth, call and answer, antiphonally. I was in the front band, playing the call part on my clarinet. I can still remember the feeling of awe as the response came from the back of the group processing to the cemetery. It was like the front band was proclaiming “Christ is risen!” And the back band was proclaiming “He is risen indeed!”
As I have remembered this experience of my teenage years, a time when Easter came alive for me in a way that it never had before, I know that the experience helped to shape my life and my faith. However, as this memory returns to me today, I am reminded that the Moravians experienced so much trial in their lives and their story reminds me of a theme that keeps coming to me over and over again the last several years. This group of faithful people were a group of people, stranded without a home, at the mercy of strangers, depending upon the kindness of others and on their faith in God and each other.
They were refugees.
The story of the Moravians goes back to the 15th century, even before Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, nearly 500 years ago. Their religious persecution caused them to flee their home in Bohemia, a place called Moravia, which was in what is now the Czech Republic. Their roots lie in the philosophy and understanding of Jan Hus, who believed that liturgy should be in the language of the people and that the people should receive both the bread and cup. There were other ideas that set them a part as well.
The movement gained support in Bohemia and grew, however Jan Hus was summoned to attend the Council of Constance where he was condemned a heretic and burned at the stake.
A renewal of the movement in 1722 brought a small group of the faithful, who had been living in secret in Moravia, to the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. His pietist leanings led him to live a life committed to helping the poor and needy, so he allowed the Moravian refugees to settle upon his land in what is now the eastern part of Germany.
Life was tough for this refugee group, even though they were safe on Zinzendorf’s estate. Soon divisions occurred and life became difficult. On August 13, 1727, the Moravians called a day of fasting to heal their divisions. It is reported that the Holy Spirit came upon them and taught them to love one another. It is from this experience that the Moravian Love Feast emerged.
In 1741, a small group of Moravians came to Pennsylvania to set up a community in religious freedom. Later a group of Moravians came down to North Carolina and settled in groups throughout the northern piedmont, establishing churches, such as the one in Eden, NC where I play my clarinet one Easter morning.
As I have remembered this Easter experience I am struck again by this group of refugees who were persecuted because they did not believe like everyone else around them. They wandered, they settled where someone offered them space, they moved again and settled in the colonies and made a difference in the building of this country. And through it all they prayed and trusted God.
This is truly a resurrection story. This group of people who could have easily experienced death were resurrected through trusting God and the kindness of others who understood that God calls us to welcome the stranger.
Maybe it is because of their story of near death and resurrection that the Moravians are so good at proclaiming that “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Maybe it is because of their history of being persecuted and depending on their faith and the kindness of God’s people that they are able to proclaim vividly the risen Christ through the harmonies of Bach’s gorgeous music!
Maybe it is because their history contains times when they were not welcomed that they are able to welcome high school students who were up for an adventure, but not really sure why this tradition was so important to this group of faithful Moravians.
I am reminded by this memory that there are so many stories of death these days. Our world is full of stories of death. Some we are saddened by and frankly, some we are quick to say “they had it coming.” And yet, to God all stories of death are sad and painful. To God there is always the promise of life in the midst of death, of hope in the midst of despair and you and I are called upon to offer this life and this hope, even if we do not understand or if it is not the popular thing to do.
Easter is a celebration of fifty days. We call this time the Great Fifty Days. It is my prayer that throughout these Great Fifty Days and beyond, you and I can find ways to offer life in the midst of death.
To God be the glory!