I have been to scores of Easter sunrise/sonrise services, always loving the drama of beginning worship outside in the dark, usually in a cemetery, and having the sun slowly peak over the eastern horizon. I have seen numerous sunrises, always enjoying the slow emergence of the light. But usually I would be driving somewhere, not very focused on the rising of the sun, but to whatever caused me to get up so early.
On October 16, 2019, I experienced a sunrise such as I never have before. For about half the year, beginning in early October, the rising sun reaches the land of the United States first at Cadillac Mountain in the heart of Acadia National Park, 1530 feet above the cold waters of the north Atlantic. Rachel and I were staying in Bar Harbor for the first time, right next to Acadia. I checked the weather reports each night and Wednesday promised the clearest morning. Sunrise would be at 6:48am. I drove in the darkness to the parking lot near the summit. The parking lot was nearly full at 6:10, and plenty of cars were parked alongside the rode before they reached the parking area. I got one of the last spaces. I was surprised, since Columbus Day (Indigenous Peoples Day in Maine—Yea for Maine) was two days before. When the holiday weekend concludes on Monday, many seasonal activities and services stop rather suddenly. A favorite lobster place decided to close at the end of Sunday. I guess they would use Indigenous Peoples Day to recover from their busy season. I’m glad we got there on Sunday—their lobster stew is the best. Tuesday feels very different. Even the foliage seems to get the message. It seemed to peak on Saturday through Monday, then slowly move to past peak. Slowly. Though blazing colors were evident, a local reminded us that it was now past peak. I wasn’t going to argue the point with a local.
As I walked to the granite summit, I was not walking alone. People were walking the same direction from all around me. I found a spot that had a fine view of the ocean to the east. I must have heard people speaking at least a half dozen languages. Some had children alongside them. A few were carrying babies. There were plenty of leashed dogs, all on good behavior, except one near me that seemed annoyed, not angry, to be standing on a granite slab in the waning darkness. Serious photographers had their tripods on flat granite, cameras ready.
It was like a congregation gathering to worship. But no one spoke loudly. There was a voluntary hush as we waited. This congregation of hundreds, mostly strangers to one another, gathered for one purpose: to see the sun rise first. Yes, it was very much a kind of worship; an attribution of worth to a wonder of nature. Though the sun rises daily, we aren’t in this place daily.
The 20 minutes or so before sunrise were as dramatic as the actual sunrise. The eastern horizon started to turn a pale pink, then a rich rose, then something mixing gold and orange with the above. The closer we moved to that moment of sunrise, the quieter and more still the large congregation became. All attention was fixed on one point over the vast Atlantic.
When the crown of the sun appeared, the silence was broken by oohs and aahs. No one moved. Cameras clicked repeatedly. Only when the sun was fully up and the sky filling with its light, did people dare begin moving back to their cars and back to whatever the day held for them. I lingered to watch people.
I think all of you know that I am a retired pastor and a serious worshiper of the Son. How I would love to see every Sunday morning become more like that Wednesday morning. Where it is hard to find a parking space. Where people from all walks of life gather, people of every skin color and language and culture. Where all attention is fixed on one glorious, all-surpassing presence. Where children and babies are brought to experience something they can’t begin to understand yet (and dogs? Why not?). Where we are not instructed on cue to be still and hushed, but instinctively know we are in the presence of shimmering beauty that demands stillness.
Will I ever get back to Cadillac Mountain for a sunrise? I hope so. But if not, I will never forget sunrise on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. And I will approach gathered worship this Sunday with renewed wonder and eager anticipation.
(I will post more photos of that sunrise experience on my Facebook page. I’m sure there is a way to do it here, but I don’t know how to do that yet.)