MARCO ISLAND — Marco Island has been setting its alarm clocks early on Easter morning for a quarter century. Sunday morning, thousands thronged the beach behind the Madeira condominium and the Marriott hotel for the 25th Anniversary Easter Sunrise Service, trooping down Collier Blvd. in the predawn darkness carrying blankets, beach chairs, and still dozing toddlers.
They heard a message of hope and resurrection, mirrored by the sun rising in a beautiful sky behind the stage, with just enough clouds to paint a spectacular display in the east. The principal Easter message, entitled “Would You Believe It?” was delivered by the Rev. Bruce Fiol, who as founding pastor of the Marco Presbyterian Church delivered the sermon on Marco’s first Easter dawn service on the beach, back in 1988.
Fiol, who reversing the typical pattern has since moved back north, to North Carolina, to retire, told the crowd that most of us are preoccupied with our everyday lives, to the exclusion of spiritual concerns.
“The weather, the traffic, and the news in that order,” fill our thoughts when we awake, he said. “We don’t think of eternal things.” Death is one of the events that changes that pattern, and Fiol invoked the death of Jesus, along with the reaction of the Pharisees.
“The leaders of organized religion hated him,” said the preacher. “In their sadistic delight they added their own jeering heh, heh, heh to the mockey of the crowds,” telling Jesus he couldn’t even save himself, let alone anyone else, as he suffered on the cross. The question facing people today, said Fiol, is the one Jesus asked Martha, sister of Lazarus: “Do you believe this?”
Before the sermon, the attendees heard another voice that was part of the original beach celebration, when soloist Linda Sandlin sang “Were You There.” Her husband Alan Sandlin acted as master of ceremonies. Sharing the prelude musical honors with longtime keyboardist Marv Hollenbeck was the Lely High School Brass, conducted by John Stein.
Rev. Kirk Dreiser of the Wesley United Methodist Church led the opening moments and prayer, inviting those present to turn and greet their neighbors, spread out across a wide swath of beach. Rev. Thomas McCulley of the New Life Community Church provided the closing moments, sharing the story of a pastor who indicated a “wonderful thing” had happened in his congregation, when a parishioner died and left a bequest to the church. McCulley wondered aloud how the suggestion of remembering the church in one’s will could be accomplished tastefully, and thereby planted that seed in the minds of the thousands who listened.
There was no official estimate of just how many that included. The fleet of boats just offshore, whose masts were the first thing to be hit with the sun’s light as it rose, numbered over five dozen. The crowd on the beach certainly numbered over five thousand, a figure that, Dr. Fiol said after the ceremony, recalled the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. There were enough people on the beach to populate a good sized village or an above average rock concert, but as Fiol pointed out, the service has been drawing crowds since its inception.
That first year, he remembered between greeting old friends who came up for a word or a hug, he urged the 100 or so in his congregation to each come and bring a friend, hoping for a turnout of 200, but the attendance that year was tallied at around 2,000.
Easter falls earlier this year than it has since 2008, and will not be celebrated again in March until 2016. But the beach is beautiful every morning, even without the company of thousands of your neighbors.