By John De Gano
The alarm went off at 3 a.m., signaling that our two and one half hour nap time was over and it was time for Cheryl and I to prepare ourselves for the next leg of our marathon endurance race through Holy Week that had begun with the procession of palms on Passion Sunday and was now culminating, eight days later, with an interfaith prayer service high atop Mt. Rubidoux on Easter Sunday morning.
Twice before I had attempted this only to find myself in the hospital (unrelated to Mt. Rubidoux or the sunrise service) instead of on the mountain. A more superstitious person might have given up out of fear, but I sallied forth with the knowledge that removed gall bladders don’t grow back and DVT blood clots caused by long periods of inactivity (like sitting on airplanes) are less likely to happen (if you don’t go anywhere!).
But I wasn’t taking any chances either. Cheryl and I would go up the mountain by van, bringing with us the Raincross bell built last year by fellow Easter Sunrise committee member (and St. Thomas the Apostle alum) Ted Hewitt.
Ted placed the bell in my keeping after its maiden-tolling at the 2015 sunrise service, and we have used it regularly at the Ministry Center to announce the noon-time Angelus prayer.
Arriving at the designated loading spot we transferred the bell and stand from our Honda Civic Hybrid to the back of a spacious (by comparison) 12-passenger van for the windy and steep climb up the mountainside.
Once we arrived at the top, Cheryl would oversee the placement and safety of the bell while I met with the other Easter Sunrise Committee members for prayer and last minute instructions.
As we were breaking up, George Flowers, a representative of the Friends of Mt. Rubidoux (one of the organizations credited with saving the Serra cross from being removed when the City of Riverside was sued for having a religious symbol on public land), took his position and would toll the bell seven times (one for each statement) at 6 a.m., signaling that the service had begun.
The air had grown colder in that final hour before sunrise (6:45 a.m.) and I could now see my breath as I exhaled into the pre-dawn darkness. I eagerly slipped my ‘winter weight’ alb and stole on over my St. Catherine polo shirt and warmed myself as I awaited my turn at the microphone.
Bob Davis, another committee member from St. Thomas (and my backup), greeted me briefly and then found his seat somewhere in the darkness. My role was to give an introduction to the Seven Statements of Jesus Christ from the Cross and then to reflect on the first one, “Father forgive them… They know not what they do.”
And so, the 108th Annual Easter Sunrise Service from Mt. Rubidoux, the oldest Easter sunrise service in the country, began. By the time the sun peeked over the Box Springs Mountains to the east, we were surrounded by some 2,500 – 3,000 people, seated all over the hilltop on rocks or blankets, each having made the journey to the summit in the dark.
The service concluded with a message about Jesus’ resurrection and then the story of a young woman trafficked into prostitution who had been rescued and was now being assisted by Rebirth Homes, an organization dedicated to getting the trafficked off the streets and into stable home life.
We piled back into our van giddy at how well everything had gone and how the messages delivered seemed to have dovetailed seamlessly into one another.
Back at our cars, we wished each other a Happy and Blessed Easter! and went our separate ways -- Some to get ready to preside at their own churches’ services and others, like Cheryl and I, home to bed, our Holy Week marathon completed.
And later, as we drifted off to sleep our minds’ eye replaying the beauty of the Easter sunrise and the hope-filled faces we met and shared this sacred moment in the newness of day, we knew that it had been worth it.
“It is finished.” we sighed, thinking of Jesus’ own final words of love from the cross.
At least until next year…
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.