Easter in Eritrea, 1964

Easter Morning in Eritrea, 1964

Without thinking much about it, I learned a lot of church traditions, hymns, and Bible stories due to our family’s relentless church going in my childhood. I had a superficial knowledge of Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving—the only religious holidays we celebrated. Truth to be told, I was most interested in the most sensational aspects of those holidays, and I was especially grateful for the school vacations they provided. If I had heard someone say “Christian education” as a boy, I would have shuddered, tried to forget I had heard it, and hoped I would be forgiven. As it was, the rhythms of church life provided an adequate Christian education for me and other young heathens. We were gradually, inexorably absorbing our parents’ beliefs and traditions.

Christmas was so exciting and so appealing to my sensual nature when I was young that I largely mostly missed the point of Easter. I didn’t realize the magnitude of it until I was older. I did perceive the drama of the empty tomb. I could feel the thrill of being there and seeing the angel inside. I could sense, at least superficially, the newness of that morning in Jerusalem. And I could feel some of its reality in Elmore, Ohio, especially if it was a clear, sunny day in a year when Easter came late enough for warm weather. I thought it would be exciting to attend an Easter Sunrise service. I thought of sunrise literally, not figuratively, and I wanted to be in a service that began in darkness and ended in the full light of day. Never mind the misery of rising that early and being in the dark on a cold spring morning: I wanted the full treatment.

One year when I was in high school, a brave Sunday school teacher gave in to my urging and agreed to have a sunrise service with the youth very early on Easter morning. We planned to meet at the church and go to a place where we might see the sunrise. I don’t remember if we had in mind anything more spiritual than seeing the sun coming up over the horizon; our spirituality might not have exceeded that of ancient pagans, who worshipped the sun, moon, and stars.

We didn’t make it to a scenic or holy place to see the sunrise that day. Only a handful of kids showed up at church, and our teacher’s courage faded in the chill of the dark morning. Our little group disbanded, and most returned to their homes for naps. The tomb was not yet open and empty, and we had left, I thought, without the garden tomb experience I had hoped we would re-create.

Determined as I was, I drove alone to the nearest shore of Lake Erie to seek the inspiration I thought would come with an Easter sunrise. But Lake Erie was a disappointment too. By the time I arrived, the sky was as dark and gray as the lake’s water. Clouds obscured the sun, and the shrill cry of a few gulls seemed to stab my expectant heart rather than stirring it. I shivered, got back in my car, and went home for breakfast before the Easter morning service.

I’m sure the service that Sunday was holy and good. Men, women, and children were all dressed up, many in bright new clothes, to praise God and show respect for each other. Lilies lined the front of the church, and even I could tell the music was unusually powerful. We undoubtedly sang “Up from the Grave He Arose,” a song that was nearly mandatory on Easter Sunday. Possibly our little choir attempted the “Hallelujah Chorus,” as it did some years. After church, most families gathered at home for a dinner of ham, sweet potatoes, and other holiday foods. For me, Easter had come and was celebrated, but it didn’t bring the great, beautiful sunrise experience I had wanted.

I was much older, twenty-four to be exact, when I learned how Eritrean Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter. I had entered the Peace Corps immediately after graduating from college in June 1962. At age twenty-two, I was sent to Ethiopia to teach in a public school in the province of Eritrea, which was already engaged in a war of independence that would last thirty years. I was in the lovely little city of Adi Ugri in the Eritrean highlands at an altitude of about 6,500 feet. Christianity and Islam were practiced peacefully side by side there; animosity was directed outward, against the Ethiopian empire of which the Eritreans were unwilling members.

In Eritrea, Easter was the most important Christian holiday. Christmas season, in comparison, passed as barely a blip on the Christian radar. It was mainly a time when the Europeans and Americans decorated their homes, sang special songs, and exchanged gifts while the Orthodox Eritrean believers stood by tolerantly. Eritreans reserved their spiritual adoration for Easter.

Easter in Eritrea did not come upon its people suddenly one fine Sunday morning. It was preceded by a rigorous, forty-day time of fasting. Most people were very poor, yet for forty days before Easter, they ate no meat, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, nor any other product extracted from an animal, bird, fish, or reptile. The observant Christians ate a variety of vegetable and bean dishes throughout their Lenten season. No one perished from this fasting, and this in itself may be miraculous, given the near-starvation diets of so many.

The Eritrean Orthodox fast was broken at midnight on Easter morning. Streams of worshipers arrived carrying candles, a reminder of the Light that shone in the darkness, the Light the darkness could not comprehend and could not put out. Churches were packed, and many congregants stood outside in the chilly night. Inside, ancient chants proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and soon the feasting began.

At midnight on the eve of Easter 1964, I climbed to the roof of my house in Adi Ugri, Eritrea, to see the procession of candle-bearing worshipers arriving at the Orthodox church half a mile away. The time exposure picture I took that night formed my image of Easter for many years. Lights glowed through the church’s windows, and candlelight illuminated the pure white traditional Eritrean/Ethiopian robes of those approaching the church. The new day they celebrated divided the Christian future from the ancient past. That year I finally saw the Easter sunrise.

Having seen the drama of the Orthodox Easter, I appreciated Easter in America more profoundly than ever before in the years that followed. The experience helped me begin to understand that Easter, not Christmas, is the central Christian celebration. Easter became so much more than my youthful perception, limited as it was to the lilies, the new clothing, Easter eggs, and special Easter music. At last I understood the significance of the first pilgrimage to see the empty tomb, newly illuminated amid the darkness outside. I had heard of it many times, but I hadn’t really seen it until then.

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