So begins one of my most vivid Easter memories. It had been raining when we'd gone to bed, not the monsoon sheets of full rainy season, but a steady downpour. When my husband and I rousted four sleepy, protesting children out of bed at 4 AM, cloud cover blackened any glimpse of stars or moon, a drizzle still dampening our faces as we piled into our rusted, elderly minivan. I had to wonder why we'd ever agreed to join the church we worked with in a poorer, unpaved neighborhood of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, at the city stadium for the interdenominational Easter sunrise service.
At least at this early hour, there was none of the traffic that usually congested this city of a million. Nor was there any light beyond the twin yellow beams of our headlights jolting up and down through muddy ruts. Sane citizens still slept. Only a few main boulevards boasted street lamps. We made a normal hour drive in less than twenty minutes. By the time our tires touched the cobblestones of the city center, we'd met up with other headlights. Entire buses and market trucks packed with waving, cheering passengers vied with pickups moonlighting as taxis and the rare private vehicle.
By the time we'd found a parking spot some blocks from the stadium, the streets were filled with people hurrying the same direction. The smart ones had brought along lengths of plastic, even an occasional umbrella, to cover their heads against the drizzle. This March night held the warmth of early fall in Bolivia's semitropical lowlands, so our four children had no objection to the damp. Their mother was less complacent, irritated that I hadn't thought to bring tarp or umbrellas. The stadium had no roof. Was there a point to fighting through this crowd, only to discover the event rained out?
But my misgivings were clearly a minority opinion, the trickle of pedestrians becoming thousands as we approached the high, concrete oval of the stadium. Despite the early hours, food venders were out in full force. The savory odor of shish kebabs sizzling on coal grills, cheese empanadas fresh from a fryer, a fragrance of cinnamon that was hot api, a thick, sweet gruel made from purple corn, prompted eager pleas from my family. We paused to add kebabs and empanadas to the fruit and bottled water we'd brought along.
Inside was a reminder why we'd left home so early. The 50,000 capacity stadium was already almost full. The bravest had already been here for hours in an all-night prayer vigil. Family groups and entire congregations staked out sections of the concrete bleachers. Hand-lettered banners identified each church while brightly-painted placards exulted 'Jesus Lives!', 'He is Risen!', 'Happy Easter!', 'Celebrate!' The stage out on the field was currently empty and silent, but church groups with guitars, hand drums and tambourines were vying to out-sing each other around the stadium. Balloons tied to railings and wandering venders offering popcorn and soda in plastic disposable cups completed a carnival atmosphere.
Most of this crowd had come much further than our family, from one of the countless neighborhoods of thatched-roofed hovels and dirt alleys that make up most of Santa Cruz. The churches to which they would return for the regular Sunday morning services would be a larger thatched-roof version of their homes or perhaps a more middle-class church like the one we attended with actual brick walls and a tin roof. Their clothing showed the ethnic mix Santa Cruz had become in the last decade of urban growth. Layered bright skirts, ponchos, and top hats of highland Quechua. Sleeveless cotton dresses and white pants of lowland Guarani. Blue jeans and T-shirts of the urbanized Spanish.
Upper-class professionals stood out with their suit coats and shiny shoes, women in tailored pant suits and high heels. In the outside world of poverty, racial tension, social injustice, and class hatred that was Bolivia, these groups would have little reason to intermingle. But for this hour and in this place, social, cultural, class rifts were suspended. This was one family come together to celebrate a common hope and faith.
The sky was now paling even through the cloud cover, so we no longer needed a floodlight to spot the banner proclaiming 'Iglesia Cristiana Antioquia' high up one bleacher. Squeezing in with the rest of our church group on the damp concrete steps, we shared our food acquisitions with friends, accepted in return a handful of tangerines and sweet buns, still warm and sooty from a wood oven. As I bit into an empanada, melted cheese oozing from the flaky pastry, my resourceful husband produced a thermos of coffee. With the strong, black brew banishing drowsiness, my own enthusiasm rose to match the wild excitement of my children. What better place to be on a soggy Easter dawn than a concrete bleacher in an open South American stadium with 50,000 of my brothers and sisters in the family of God?
The stage was no longer empty or silent. Loudspeakers with far too many amps for even so large a facility crackled the proclamation: "Cristo ha resucitado! Christ has risen!"
Surging to its feet, the crowd roared with the enthusiasm of a World Cup playoff. "Cristo ha resucitado eternamente! Christ has risen for all eternity!"
Triumphant shouts became a song, "Celebrate Jesus, celebrate! He has risen!" As I raised my voice to join in, I realized the drizzle had stopped. The open sky above the stadium was aflame with drifting cloud billows and streamers of reds and pinks and oranges. Even as that joyous exultation rose to shake the stadium, the clouds broke open, and as though an answer from heaven itself, a shaft of light blazed earthward to touch the grass of the stadium field.
The sun had risen.
The Son has risen.
It is a dark and stormy night.
War. Oppression. Injustice. Famine. Grief. Pain. Death. Sometimes the storm clouds seem so many and dark, it does not seem possible light will ever prevail. But this morning I join brothers and sisters in faith gathered in the burned-out shell of an Orissa church, behind closed doors in countries where they dare not raise voices in song, in stadiums across Latin America, on Miami beach and an Amazon riverbank, and in countless church sanctuaries around the world, as we celebrate the reason we have hope. Jesus Christ, who freely gave His life on a cross for our redemption, is risen from the dead! Though the storm clouds may momentarily mask our vision, the light has already triumphed.
The sun will return.
The Son will return.