Since 1927, Arlington National Cemetery has served as ground zero for one of the most recognizable Easter Sunrise Services in the nation. Hosted by Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Commander Col. Mike Henderson, the Easter Sunrise Service is a significant time to strengthen the spiritual fitness of all military personnel and their families while enhancing relationships within the National Capital Region community, according to U.S Army Chap. (Lt. Col.) Steven M. Jones, JBM-HH chaplain.

A career chaplain, Jones will lead the service and be the first chaplain to speak during the March 27 nondenominational Easter service at the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. The story of Easter—a holiday that commemorates the rising of Jesus Christ three days after his death—is special because it’s part of American culture, according to Jones.

“Every culture has what they call their story, and for Americans, Easter has been a very encouraging narrative—a matter of general acceptance with value to it,” explained Jones.

The Easter service, which is open to the public and traditionally results in a packed house of hundreds of attendees, features a keynote speakers and a musical performance by a military band and vocal group. The Easter message will be delivered by U.S. Army Chap. (Brig. Gen.) Thomas L. Solhjem, deputy chief of chaplains for the Army.

Beyond the pomp and circumstance normally associated with the event, Jones added that there is a “high probability” that people in attendance will come to something that brings them a sense of hope.

“The narrative of Easter carries a meaning beyond ‘a man is born, he gets an education, gets a job, gets married, grows old, retires and dies.’ That’s the story,” said Jones. “This narrative brings hope through a resurrection—life after death—and that’s the meaningfulness and comfort this service brings to the practicing Christian, the spiritual-but-not-religious [person] and a diverse smorgasbord of others.”

A 90 year history of service, spirituality

Jones told the Pentagram he’s spent a long time sifting through historical documents to better understand the audience he and other chaplains in the NCR serve. These documents annotate a variety of changes of who attended the Easter Sunrise Service as well as who hosted the event. Documents Jones found revealed that for nearly 60 years, the Knights Templar, a Masonic organization, conducted the service from 1927 until 1980, before the Military District of Washington took over coordination of the event. Just last year, JBM-HH took responsibility of hosting the Easter Sunrise Service from MDW.

In addition to changes in sponsorship, attendance also changed over the last nine decades.

In the mid-1950’s, for example, approximately 9,000 people attended the annual historic service. The number dropped to approximately 4,000 people four decades later. And in 2015, the number capped at approximately 1,500.

Jones attributed the dip in attendance over the years to a population who feels detached from events associated with organized religion or spirituality.

Still, the Easter Sunrise Service serves as an opportunity for chaplains to offer encouragement to a population that can change their circumstances by changing their values and views, overcoming adversity and becoming stronger through a journey of ups and downs, he said.

That change occurs when an individual overcomes adversity with a “renewed vigor,” according to Jones. Doing so is what Jones calls “post-traumatic growth” – an important component to making an individual stronger.

“This is a call for people to process their journey and the choices they make on that journey,” Jones adds. “Choices become who you are.”

U.S. Navy Lt. Chad Goddard, chaplain for Headquarters and Service Battalion on the Henderson Hall portion of JBM-HH, metaphorically likened the celebration of Easter to an emotional and spiritual spring cleaning.

“Easter offers a loaded theme and spring in itself offers a lot of different connotations to it,” said Goddard. “Whether people are facing failed relationships, a failed job, or any other experience, there’s an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and re-begin and rise from the ashes.”

Goddard said the service offers attendees a “unique experience” in celebrating Easter Sunday.

“It’s a unique experience for any person to be on the nation’s most sacred ground, on one of the most sacred holidays during the year,” he said. “It’s the experience and the pageantry. Being able to be at Arlington National Cemetery as the sunrise comes up is a spiritual moment even for a person that’s not religious. It’s a place of contemplation and meditation.”

Visitor information for this year’s service

This year’s Easter Sunrise Service will be held March 27 at Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. The service will begin with a call to worship at 6:30 a.m. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Gates open at 5 a.m. Shuttle service begins at 5:15 a.m.

An interpreter for the hearing impaired will be present during the service.

There are two options to access the service:

-Attendees with and without DoD ID Cards can enter Arlington National Cemetery and park in the cemetery’s Welcome Center parking lot. Parking is free; a free shuttle service will transport guests. There is no walking to the amphitheater from the Welcome Center.

-Attendees with DoD ID Cards can enter JBM-HH and park in the Tri-Services parking lot (Old Post Chapel). A shuttle will transport guests to the amphitheater.

Attendees must keep their DoD ID cards on them for the entire duration of the event.

Authorized items guests can bring include blankets, cushions, diaper bags, strollers, cameras, cell phones, and clear plastic water bottles. Be advised, all hand-carried items are subject to search.

Unauthorized items include weapons, backpacks, coolers, folding chairs, pyrotechnics, pets (except certified service animals), and glass containers.

Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale can be reached at awright@dcmilitary.com.