- - Sunday, April 8, 2012

As the sun rose Sunday on an old Moravian cemetery in North Carolina, 310 musicians with trumpets, tubas and trombones played in unison while thousands sang, “Hallelujah, praise the Lord” in an Easter scene mostly unchanged since before the Revolutionary War.

The Moravian churches in Winston-Salem — a city famous for tobacco, higher education and Krispy Kreme doughnuts — celebrated Easter at sunrise for the 240th time, a streak unbroken by rain, freezing temperatures or the Civil War.

“To have 8,000 to 10,000 people come together like this in a worshipful atmosphere is just remarkable,” said I.B. Southerland, a Moravian church member who organized and deployed about 160 ushers who kept the overflow crowds moving through the narrow streets and paths of the cemetery known as God’s Acre.

It’s one of the oldest and possibly the largest such ceremony in the U.S. It starts well before dawn for the members of the Moravian Church, whose ancestors settled here in the 18th century, concentrated in a part of the city now called Old Salem, with brick sidewalks and Colonial buildings.

Each day of Easter Week the Moravians have a distinctive church service, culminating in the weekend that sees hundreds of members cleaning and decorating the gravestones, whose uniformity symbolizes the equality of believers before God.

It’s Sunday morning, though, that really sets this celebration apart. Brass bands assemble at Moravian churches across the city shortly after midnight, and at 1:45 a.m. they all play “Sleepers, Awake,” before setting off on a two-hour circuit of their neighborhoods, stopping to play hymns and chorales on street corners and familiar landmarks.

“This is the best day of the year,” Andrew Halverson, who directs the brass band at Ardmore Moravian Church, told his musicians before they headed out into the early morning darkness. “Easter is the best time of year, for so many reasons.”

Christians across the U.S. and around the world celebrated Sunday as the holiest and most joyous day of the church calendar, which celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and which symbolizes hope and new beginnings.

“May the risen Christ grant hope to the Middle East and enable all the ethnic, cultural and religious groups in that region to work together to advance the common good and respect for human rights,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “to the city and to the world”) Easter speech.

Underlining the pope’s concern for the Middle East, the Holy See said Sunday the pope would make a three-day pilgrimage to Lebanon in September, celebrating Mass in Beirut and encouraging bishops and other churchmen in the Middle East. In his address, he first mentioned the violence in Syria and lamented that many Syrians who have fled the conflict are enduring “dreadful sufferings” and prayed that they would receive welcome and assistance.

In Texas, a pastor jocularly compared the pope with a football player, noting the star power of New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, who drew a crowd of about 15,000 to the Protestant church’s outdoor Easter service.

“In Christianity, it’s the pope and Tebow right now,” Celebration Church pastor Joe Champion said about the 20-minute interview he conducted with the quarterback. “We didn’t have enough room to handle the pope.”

At the “Easter on the Hill” morning service under sunny skies about 20 miles north of Austin, the football star said he welcomed the attention on his convictions as well as the “Tebowing” prayer pose he often strikes on the field because it puts prayer and God into the public conversation.

In Jerusalem, thousands of Christians gathered for Easter celebrations, crowding into one of Christianity’s holiest churches, worshipping, singing and praying. Catholics and Protestants took turns to hold ceremonies within the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried.

Thousands of Palestinian Catholics smashed egg shells, representing Jesus’ emerging from his tomb, and they ate circular bread symbolizing his crown of thorns.

In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II attended a traditional Easter Sunday service with three generations of the royal family at Windsor Castle. The monarch was joined on Sunday by her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, and three of her children — Princes Andrew and Edward, along with Princess Anne.

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