With a pencil serving as baton, choirmaster Jung Jae Lee led 45 men and women through Handel's "Thine Is the Glory" several times one night last week at Fairfax Korean Church. They were rehearsing for one of the biggest events in their calendar, the Easter sunrise service at the Jefferson Memorial.
In its 18th year, the service draws nearly 1,000 Korean American Christians from churches throughout the Washington area. "It's very meaningful because Jesus Christ rose and was seen by Mary Magdalene and another Mary in the early morning," said the Rev. Kwang-Ho Yang, pastor of Fairfax Korean. "That's why people like to be outdoors. It's more biblical."
Indeed, thousands of local Christians traditionally rise from their beds in the dark Easter morning to celebrate the central tenet of their faith -- Christ's rising from the dead -- at scores of outdoor sunrise services. They gather at the picnic area of Point Lookout State Park on the edge of Chesapeake Bay in St. Mary's County, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and in the Mount Vernon traffic circle outside the first president's home.
Timing their worship to coincide with the sun's scheduled 6:25 a.m. appearance, Methodists from Leesburg celebrate a 6:15 service at the gazebo in Ida Lee Park, Catholics attend a 6 a.m. Mass in the gardens of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington and worshipers of various denominations fill the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery for a 6:30 a.m. service first held in the 1920s.
Both large and small, these increasingly popular gatherings ensure that the strains of "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah," a musical staple of Easter liturgies, are heard all over the metropolitan area as the holy day dawns.
For most participants, daybreak's ancient significance as a symbol of new life reinforces the meaning of Easter.
"One of the nicest and neatest things is to be on top of that hill and watch the sun come up that Sunday morning," said Marye Elizabeth Thomas, 64, who since 1985 has attended the sunrise service on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation, an event sponsored by a consortium of churches and social service agencies. "It's really, like kids say, awesome."
Don E. Saliers, professor of theology and worship at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, said the origins of sunrise services in the United States are unclear, but they go back to the early part of the last century. A prominent feature of these services, he said, is that many are ecumenical, bringing together Christians of different denominations.
That is so for the 7 a.m. service held for the past 15 years at the Mount Vernon traffic circle. It is sponsored by the Mount Vernon Rotary Club, and Boy Scout Troop 993 of nearby Wesley United Methodist Church always volunteers to set up folding chairs for the 150 to 300 people who attend, said Rotary Club member Andy Turner.
The nine churches that compose the Great Falls Ecumenical Council hold their annual 6 a.m. sunrise service on one of ramps near the visitor center in Great Falls Park. The 45-minute service is a tradition that began in the 1940s.
"Years ago, I understand they used to have it down on the rocks. But now that is not considered safe, and there's also a problem getting the sound equipment down there," said the Rev. Richard Keller, pastor of Great Falls United Methodist Church. "You can hear the falls, see the sun rise, hear birds singing; it's a beautiful time."
The ecumenical nature of some services is a draw for many families with relatives visiting for the holiday, said George Martin of Columbia, a Catholic deacon who is organizing this year's 34th sunrise service held by the Ecumenical Worship Task Force of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry.
"It's a time when members of families are coming in, and if they are of different [religious] backgrounds, they can go to a common service," Martin said. And some people like to come because "they are allergic to lilies," which grace many an altar at Easter, he added.
Attendance at the service has grown from about 75 in its initial year to around 300, Martin said.
Perhaps the area's largest outdoor sunrise service is held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In its 25th year, it is sponsored by the nondenominational Capital Church in McLean, whose pastor, the Rev. Amos Dodge, said he was inspired to hold a sunrise service at the memorial during a 1979 springtime walk on the Mall.
He applied for a permit from the National Park Service, and about 120 people showed up in 1979. Now, the one-hour proceedings, which begin at 6:30 a.m. and feature a small orchestra and a 50-voice choir, attract about5,000 worshipers.
The service goes on rain or shine.
"We feel that if Christ could go to the cross for us, we can endure a little rain to celebrate his resurrection," Dodge said.
This year, 58 members of Sudley Springs Worship Center, a Baptist church in Gainesville, planned to board a bus at 5 a.m. to come to the Lincoln Memorial service, said the Rev. Ron Pledger, senior pastor.
"We came last year for the first time," Pledger said. "We sat there in the rain, but it didn't dampen anyone's spirits.
"It was an awesome service. The Lord was all over that place," Pledger said.
The 6 a.m. Jefferson Memorial sunrise service is organized by the Council of Korean Churches of Greater Washington.
Yang, who is chairman of the council, said about 200 churches will be represented.
"This year we plan to pray for America, especially for the prompt restoration of the Iraqi people and stabilization over there," Yang said. "And we'll pray that South Korea and America have a good relationship."
In St. Mary's County, Lexington Park United Methodist Church in Ridge hosts the 7 a.m. nondenominational service at Point Lookout State Park, said park manager Keith Frere. The tradition usually draws 400 to 500 worshipers, he said.
Another waterside service takes place at Waterfront Park in Alexandria. The 6 a.m. service, in its seventh year, normally attracts about 60 people, according to the Rev. Lowell Schuetze, pastor of the host congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church of Alexandria.
In the middle of the first service at which he presided, Schuetze recalled, "everything was just bathed in this glorious sunrise, and in that unspoken moment was the message that Christ is alive and that life has triumphed over death, just as the sun rises and dispels the darkness of night."
The Rev. Manuel Ybarra, vicar of the Franciscan Monastery, said that last year was the first time their outdoor sunrise Mass got rained on since the tradition began in 1982.
"That is unbelievable," he said, adding that when he brought the service into the monastery's chapel last year, "I apologized to the people because they wanted the Mass outside. But we have to go with what God gives us."
Ybarra said attendance has grown from about 100 people in 1982 to about 500 in recent years. "And don't forget," he said, "that we have coffee and doughnuts every year."
Post-service breakfasts are part of most sunrise services, their organizers said. And almost all the clergy, along with many of the worshipers, need the nourishment because their worshipping has just begun.
Awaiting them at their churches, freshly adorned with flowers and full of restless children in new clothes, is the rest of their congregation, primed to participate in indoor Easter services. Under a sun that has been up for hours.