PHOTOS: Easter dawns at Marco's beach – 23rd annual sunrise service attracts thousands of worshippers

— For Marco’s Easter sunrise service at the beach on Sunday, everyone was late.

Easter this year fell on April 24, later than it has since 1943 and later than it will again until 2038. With the “season” traditionally ending after Easter, this is good for tourism and real estate. It also meant that unlike recent years, the service did not start in the pre-dawn dark.

The thousands of worshippers who made the mini-pilgrimage to the beach behind the Marriott hotel had plenty of light to set out their blankets and beach chairs, as organist Marv Hollenbeck played a musical prelude. On a perfect morning, they sat in silence, called out “He is risen indeed,” and greeted their neighbors on adjoining chairs and blankets when prompted.

The crowd covered acres of beach, with those looking for a little more room setting up down by the water’s edge. A few condo residents attended by simply stepping out onto their balconies.

Clothing ran the gamut from bare feet and beach casual to the preachers’ dressy suits. One youngster, Nicholas Tekieli, sat with his family wearing a white shirt and tie. Travel mugs, presumably full of coffee, were the accessory of choice.

Hayden Schelenberger, three, kept herself busy by burying her mother’s feet with sand, while her older sister, Devon, watched.

A cool breeze blew off the gulf, rustling the white cloth draped over the rough wooden cross set up behind the stage. Alan Sandlin welcomed the crowd, noting the late date, and commented on the actual latecomers, who continued to trudge from the street across the beach.

“There are a few stragglers. They’ll be here around eight,” he said, as the service started at seven.

The sun rose in the eastern sky between the high-rises, underscoring the morning’s message of rebirth and resurrection. It picked out the vessels offshore in the spectator fleet of over two dozen boats first, and then proceeded across the beach, bathing the speakers in a glow of warm light.

Three pastors, Roger Felipe of the First Baptist Church, William Lyle of Marco Presbyterian Church, and Thomas McCulley of the New Life Community Church of God, took turns speaking to the multitude. Vocal soloist Craig Greusel contributed songs including “You Raise Me Up,” and all were invited to sing “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “In Christ Alone.”

Rev. Lyle delivered the Easter Message, entitled “All I Need Is A Cheeseburger In Paradise.” He said that cheeseburgers, which he prefers with “Valdalia” onions, represent the things of this world. Focus solely on those, he warned, and “you will have indigestion.”

Lyle recounted the story of Jesus’ empty tomb, discounting any thought that the adherents who went there on the third day after his death had gone to the wrong grave.

In his closing remarks, Rev. McCulley cautioned that attaining heaven depends on accepting Jesus.

“We are not permanent residents of this island, or this country, or this planet,” he said. “It’s only good news if you hear it.”

Jean Austin, walking up the beach after the ceremony with the help of a cane and her son Wally Austin, said she has been to each of the 23 Easter sunrise services.

“This is wonderful. I didn’t see anyone I know,” she said. “I’ve been here every year, and the crowds just keep growing.”

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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