The gates to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens opened about 30 minutes before Easter Sunday’s 6:30 a.m. sunrise service.
Cars pulled into the parking lot under a dark blue sky, headlights lighting the way. When they got out of their cars, they used their phones, flashlights and transitioning light to guide their way down the dirt path to the south lawn.
The sounds of birds chirping, water falling in fountains and Duke Chapel’s 50-bell carillon ringing accompanied them on their journey.
The story of Easter begins in the dark. Scripture says that Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb in the dark and saw that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been removed.
And for hundreds in Durham, their Easter Sunday started in the dark as well, at the Duke Gardens' sunrise service.
Most sat in the 1,000 chairs that were damp with dew on the south lawn. Others stood or sat on blankets. A few brought their dogs.
“The first Easter occurred in the dark, and maybe that is one of the reasons you are here at this unusual hour for Christian worship,” said the Rev. William H. Willimon. Willimon, 70, served as the dean of Duke Chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University for 20 years. He returned to Duke after serving as the Methodist bishop of the North Alabama Conference from 2004 to 2012.
Often when people think of Easter, Willimon said, they think about bright lights, multicolored flowers and happy music.
But life is filled with darkness, like aging, cancer and the grief that follows the death of loved ones.
It was in the darkness that Mary Magdalene found two angels and Jesus, who told her to spread the message of his resurrection.
“Let’s let Mary show us the way to the true good news of Easter. Let’s remember when you stumble, and you can’t find your way, and the storm clouds gather, and the sky turns dark, and you don’t know what step to take next, that God works the night shift,” Willimon said. “It is in the dark that the angels cry out. ‘He is not here. He has risen. He has risen indeed.’ ”
Willimon’s message was accompanied by a choir, a small brass ensemble and birds and ducks moving about.
As the sun rose, the light revealed magnolia, pine and other trees standing at attention, their leaves creating a green wall around the service.
While Willimon was dean of Duke Chapel, a public safety official told him there was some discussion about prohibiting the sunrise service in the gardens due to public safety.
“It violated every insurance rule,” he said. “Having people coming on campus, stumbling around in the dark on uneven pavement.”
They decided to allow it to continue because it was a longtime Duke tradition, the public officials told him.
Willimon said he jokingly asked the officer how much it would cost to bribe him to prohibit the early morning service.
“But look at how many of you are here,” he said. “As if you know better than we, the significance of the resurrection.”
After the 30-minute service, some went straight to their cars. Others picnicked or walked through the gardens taking in the layers of blooming pink, purple, white and yellow flowers.
The service was “something magic,” said Karen Marceau, 60, of Hillsborough.
Robin Barefoot, 59, of Durham, said she came to hear Willimon preach in the garden and left with a reminder that faith is about things unseen.
Duke student Claire Tucker, 21, was a little uneasy when she woke up at 6 a.m., but she was enchanted by the “short and sweet” service and the mood if left her in, she said.
“I think I am going to another service today,” said Tucker, of Greenville. “I really wasn’t planning on doing that, but I just feel like the Lord is in me today.”