By SAMUEL M. GEBRU
CAMBRIDGE - On October 4 and 5 Mahibere Kidusan hosted a special exhibition in Cambridge, Massachusetts entitled The Ethiopian Church: Past - Present - Future. The event attracted hundreds of Ethiopians and Americans who were either members of the Ethiopian Church or were simply interested in its history, doctrine and practices. (PICTURES CAN BE FOUND HERE)
Mahibere Kidusan, or The Society of Saints, is a society of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and organized under the Sunday Schools Department. It was established in the 1980s by Ethiopian Orthodox youth who were concerned about the future of the Ethiopian Church and believed that they were the makers of its future. Mahibere Kidusan strives to promote and protect the faith and order of the Ethiopian Church from outside influences as well as to evangelize, spreading the Word of God to non-Orthodox Christians. Mahibere Kidusan founding members were primarily concerned with the expansion of Sunni Islam and Pentecostal Christianity in Ethiopia, especially during the Government of Mengistu Hailemariam when the Ethiopian Church was heavily suppressed. Today, Mahibere Kidusan is a successful society of the Ethiopian Church which has educated a robust section of our Church.
Recently, in connection with the Ethiopian Millennium of 2000, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has been opening its doors to the faithful and nonbelievers in order to exhibit the uniqueness of this Black African Church which has embedded itself into Ethiopian lifestyles, culture, customs and daily life. Through Mahibere Kidusan, the Ethiopian Church has organized successful exhibitions throughout Ethiopia and abroad. Under the guidance of the United States Archdiocese of the Ethiopian Church, Mahibere Kidusan's USA Center organized a two-day event at Saint Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge.
I had the honor of attending the exhibition on Saturday, October 4, 2008. Upon entering, attendees were given an Amharic-English booklet on the Ethiopian Church as well as a Mahibere Kidusan DVD. The exhibition was a guided tour in groups of people, starting with the History of Christianity and the Ethiopian Church and ending with the society's views on the Future of the Church and a presentation on what Mahibere Kidusan really is.
The atmosphere of awareness, faith and curiosity was quite evident in the faces of the Orthodox youth and African Americans who attended. Clergy from several of Boston's Ethiopian Orthodox Churches were also present at the 10 am opening ceremony on Saturday. The guides were extremely well confident and knew what they were saying.
History of the Church
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the second oldest Church in Christianity. The fact is Ethiopia was Christian before Europe even glanced at God. Although it was during the reign of Emperor Ezana that Saint Frumentius (Abune Selama Kesate Birhan) was ordained the first Bishop of Axum and Ethiopia officially "became" Christian with the reception of the Holy Communion and the Divine Liturgy, Ethiopia was practicing ancient form of Christianity which has its roots with Phillip the Evangelist (Acts 8). Mind you, Phillip the Evangelist preached to the Finance Minister of Queen Gersamot Hendeke VII who reigned c. 42. Years after our Lord Jesus Christ was resurrected our beloved Ethiopia turned to his grace!
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Ethiopian Church is that it is the only church to put equal emphasis on both Covenants: the Old and New Testaments; hence its strong Judaic-Christian heritage. The Ethiopian Church appeals many people since it’s a Black African Church founded almost 1,500 years before the "white man" entered Africa spreading Catholicism and Protestantism and at least 300 years before Rome looked to Christ. The Ethiopian Church alongside with the Coptic Church is a member of the Miaphysite (Oriental) Orthodox Churches; they follow the non-Chalcedonian doctrine of the united divine and human natures of Christ, hence the word Tewahedo which is Ge'ez for "Being Made One" from the Arabic word Tawhid. Although the Miaphysite Churches attest to the united nature of Christ, they are in communion with the Eastern Churches which together make Orthodox Christianity. Unlike Catholics or Protestants, the Orthodox Churches are one, although usually they are nationalistic churches (e.g. Greek, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, etc.).
Ethiopia's adoption of Christianity came at a time when Axum was practically a Jewish State after the Biblical trek of Queen Makeda to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon (1 Kings 10). Makeda believed in Solomon's God so much that when she returned to Axum she burned down all pagan temples and built Synagogues. The notion of equal importance between the Old and New Covenants is because it was out of the Old Covenant that the New one came, additionally the Old Covenant taught us about the Messiah who would save us all if we believe in him. Hence, the Ethiopian Church practices extremely rigorous and faith-testing fasts which consist of 250 days out of the year, we also practice male circumcision, taking shoes off when entering churches (Exodus 3:5) and veneration of the Ark of the Covenant.
Moreover, the Ethiopian Church's relations to Judaism are a result of the antiquity of the church and Ethiopia's deep and longstanding relations with Jerusalem. We follow dietary customs similar to Judaism's Kashrut: pork is absolutely prohibited and animals must be slaughtered in a specific way. Our women cannot enter the church during menses (menstrual cycle) and are expected to cover their hair (1 Corinthians 11) which is actually a New Testament practice too. Although this isn't strictly an Ethiopian Orthodox practice, men and women are segregated when facing towards the alter: men to the left, women to the right. We also celebrate both the Sabbath and Lord's Day although the Lord's Day is emphasized more since our Lord and Savior was resurrected on Holy Sunday (Easter).
Lastly, the recent history of the church within the past century provides a great source of hope for its future: the autocephaly of the Ethiopian Church from Alexandria and the consecration of Abune (Archbishop) Basilios as Patriarch and Catholicos of the Ethiopian Church guaranteed the permanent status of the Church in Ethiopia. Since Patriarch Abune Basilios, we've had a total of 5 Patriarchs, Abune Tewephilos, Abune Tekle Haimanot, Abune Merkorios and the current being Abune Paulos I, Patriarch and Catholicos of Ethiopia.
Many have criticized the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for "worshiping" icons. However, icons are representations of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary who is essentially the primus inter pares of all Saints because of her status as Mother of God; scenes from the Bible, Church History and other Saints including the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and Ethiopia's Patron Saint, Saint George (Kidus Giorgis).
Many refer to the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-5) where God banned the idolatry of all images; however God also instructed that images of angels be used to decorate the Tabernacle where the Ark, Vestments, Alter, etc., were located (Exodus 25-26). For the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, icons are representations and aren't objects of worship. They increase our spirituality because we honor those who have exemplified the works of the Holy Spirit through their work and beliefs in the Lord (John 4:24).
The Ethiopian Church's Divine Liturgy is celebrated in Ge'ez, the ecclesiastical language of Ethiopia. Although in the 20th century the Ge'ez Liturgy was translated into Amharic, Ethiopia's national language, as well as English and Arabic to better serve larger audiences. The Ge'ez word for Mass, Kidase, literally means "Praise" or "Liturgy."
The Liturgy is sacrificial because it consists of the Holy Communion (John 6:51), a sacrament instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ himself on Holy Thursday (Matthew 26:26-29). Many symbolic and real actions of both Testaments are taken in order to ensure the completeness of the Liturgy: the procession from Bethlehem to the Holy of Holies; offering the sacrifice on the alter; opening and closing of curtains; rising of incense and prostration. Additionally, the Liturgy is divine because it is angelic worship because within the Holy of Holies lies the Tabernacle where the Divine Liturgy is led by the priests (Revelation 15:5). Additionally, the Liturgy consists of great reverence and we extol God just as the Angels did (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:2, 10).
In the Ethiopian Church, there are times during Liturgy where the laity will cover their face and feet to indicate we cannot see His glory and aren't worthy to stand in His presence, respectively (Isaiah 6:1-3). While we pray, we will recite "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His Glory." These actions are actions of the Angels and we remind ourselves to act humbly and with deep reverence to the Gospel. The Church argues that worship is not running around the church, jumping up and down or a Christian rock concert but a deep and profound spiritual moment where we pray in fear of the power of God but as we worship His love and grace. During the Devine Liturgy, we are filled with the Holy Spirit as we dedicate ourselves to God and serving His Kingdom. The Ethiopian Divine Liturgy is Angelic Worship, our worship is ancient and holy: there is a temple in Heaven, a church on Earth, a tabernacle (Tabot) in Heaven, one on Earth, we fall to the Glory of God and we offer the sweet fragrance of incense as did the angels. We worship in the Divine Liturgy in the same presence as the Angels, praying for the Glory of God.
For the Ethiopian Church, preparing for the Divine Liturgy starts Saturday evening, about 12 hours before the actual Liturgy. We need to be spiritually prepared by understanding the importance of God, confession, repentance and the significance of the Liturgy. Additionally physical preparation is needed by wearing our cleanest and best clothing in the presence and house of God (Exodus 19:10-11, Matthew 22:1-14 and 1 Peter 1:13) which reminds us of the spiritual purity we must attain, similar to when one attends a wedding, you will wear your suit. Women are expected to wear ankle-length dresses with a white shawl covering their hair and men should wear pants with a white shawl over their shoulders/chest (Revelation 4:2); keep in mind that white is the symbol of spiritual purity. As we enter the church we make the sign of the Cross, completely prostrate and worship. Additionally, for someone to be eligible to partake in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion the following need to be met: the person received a Baptism into the Ethiopian Church, Confessed and Repented, truly believes in the Mystery of the Eucharist and understands the importance of consuming the symbolic Body and Blood of Christ.
The actual Liturgy begins around 6:00 am with the Preparatory Service and ends with a Benediction for the laity to depart in peace. The colorful and spiritual mass is celebrated with prostration, singing, prayer and the reading of the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) which suits the day. The Ethiopian Church has 14 Anaphoras, or Liturgy of the Faithful, which coincides with particular holy days and slightly differ, but attain the core elements of the Divine Liturgy.
The Diaspora Church
The Ethiopian Church is a national church in a transnational setting. From its Patriarchate in Addis Ababa, the Church commands 45 million adherents worldwide with the number rising due to the availability of the Ethiopian Liturgy in foreign languages and the expansion of the church's teaching and evangelism methods. The western expansion of the Church is widely due to the contributions of the late His Holiness Archbishop Abune Yeshaq who was originally sent by the late Emperor Haile Selassie to the Caribbean to convert the Rastafarians to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps Abune Yeshaq's most famous convert is the reggae legend Bob Marley who was Baptized shortly before his death and given the Baptismal name Berhane Selassie (Light of the Trinity).
In the 1900s, particular under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and after the acceptance of the Coptic Orthodox Church to grant the Ethiopian Orthodox Church autocephaly, the Church spread throughout Africa, and Europe, North America and Latin America/Caribbean due to the waves of Ethiopians leaving Ethiopia during the past 40 years. Most Ethiopian Churches abroad have had humble beginnings, usually renting from an already existing congregation until enough money has been collected to purchase a permanent building.
The Diaspora Church has been severely paralyzed in the past few years over disputes regarding the legitimacy of the Ethiopian Patriarch Abune Paulos. A good number of Churches abroad have defected from the Addis Ababa Synod as a result and are under the leadership of former Patriarch Abune Merkorios of the "EOTC Synod in Exile." Despite issues surrounding legitimacy, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church abroad has been able to adapt to new and existing locations. For instance, we've always maintained monasteries in Israel, Syria, Egypt, etc., but churches in North America and Europe are relatively new. For instance, the great celebration of Meskel requires that a bonfire be set in honor of the bonfire that led Queen Helena to find the cross our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was crucified on. However, in the United States, for instance, a bonfire of that magnitude is not only a major fire hazard but most likely illegal thus the cultural creativity of Ethiopians has resulted in other ways to celebrate the Meskel Damera including Church Mass and using hand-held firecrackers/sparkling candles.
Many challenges exist for the Ethiopian Church at present. Administrative challenges consist of modernizing the management system, not doctrine, of the church in order to adapt better to the complex world of globalization. Additionally, the Church’s Hierarchy and accountability systems need to be more efficient in order to identify those who are hampering the work of the Ethiopian Church. And most importantly is the issue regarding the legitimacy of the Patriarch of Ethiopia, Abune Paulos and to devise ideas on how to permanently solve that problem while a schism has already been in place.
Religious challenges come from both other Christian denominations as well as Islam. In Ethiopia, 50% of the population are Orthodox Christian, 10% are Protestant (mainly Pentecostal) and Catholic, 35% are Sunni Muslim and 5% are Jewish, Animists and smaller local religions. According to news and Ethiopian Government reports, Orthodox Churches have been burned and attacked by Muslims in Southern Ethiopia, leaving many injured or dead. There are also issues with the over exaggeration of actual population sizes for Ethiopian Muslims, making it seem like Ethiopia is a Muslim-dominated nation.
Additionally, Catholicism and Pentecostalism present challenges to the development of the Church, particularly Pentecostalism which is rising in numbers due to its liberal approach to Christianity. Many view the Ethiopian Church as being archaic however it is a sign of its beauty and antiquity since it is an Ethiopian church and a pre-colonial church which dates back to about 10 years after the Lord was crucified. Pentecostalism’s influence on the Ethiopian Protestant realm is quite significant since most Protestants are regarded to as Pentay even if they’re not Pentecostal.
The future of the Ethiopian Church looks very promising. Mahibere Kidusan and the entire Sunday Schools Department are educating a new line of robust church scholars and laity who will be able to protect and pass on the traditions and faith our Fathers passed on to us from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many Ge’ez manuscripts are being translated into Amharic and various other Ethiopian languages and are simultaneously being translated into English, French, etc.
Additionally, many faithful will argue that there’s a great potential of evangelism with the African and African Diaspora community since the Ethiopian Church is indeed a Black African church. Ethiopia inspires many people of African descent and the notion of an Ethiopian Church is quite attractive to many, including those who attended the Mahibere Kidusan exhibition.
I end with a verse from the Gospel of Luke: “For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48).
Author's Note: This article contains two components. First, it gives an overview to the Mahibere Kidusan exhibition that was held in Boston on October 4 and 5. Second, it gives more detail on the Ethiopian Church through some of the material that was presented at the exhibition. Nothing here is conclusive based on this article and it is best to contact your local Ethiopian Orthodox Priest or Bishop for more information. The information presented here is for informative purposes, not theological.
The author, Samuel Gebru, is a 16-year-old Ethiopian youth activist, social entrepreneur, humanitarian and 12th grade student at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Patriarchate: http://www.eotc-patriarch.org/EOC_Today.htm
2. Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Patriarchate: http://www.eotc-patriarch.org/educational.htm
3. Mahibere Kidusan: http://www.eotc-mkidusan.org/English/OrthodoxForB/breif_his_ch.htm
4. Holy Trinity Orthodox Church: http://www.holy-trinity-church.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=67&Itemid=81
5. U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Report of 2008, Ethiopia Country Practices: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108368.htm
6. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, Ethiopia: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html
October 18, 2008
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