North Ethiopia: Holy Week
9 Miaziah 2003 (Ethiopian Calendar)
17 April 2011
Dear Family and Friends,
Ethiopia is a truly religious society - serious, thoughtful, and never sanctimonious. From my observations of the worshippers and the icons, paintings, carvings and decoration, I have the sense that religion here is a positive, optimistic and loving force. I hear or see almost nothing of sin, or guilt or damnation.
What I do hear from everyone is a sincere “G-d bless you” and “G-d be with you.”
During this Ethiopian Orthodox Lenten season, everyone is fasting. Menus, in restaurants and on airplanes, feature “fasting food” – no meat, no eggs, no dairy. So I am fasting as well….almost….I still like an omelet for breakfast and milk in my coffee.
And now I get it. At least, I think I get it.
The streets of this city of four million are bustling and noisy. Yet for a crowded city in Africa, they are remarkably clean. But not clear.
Diesel trucks of a variety of colors and sizes smoke their way along the broad avenues; rickety buses of a variety of colors and sizes beep from stop to stop; the Ethiopian versions of the tuk-tuk squeal around town; automobiles (not the latest models), taxicabs ( not the latest models), donkey carts in a variety of colors and sizes, hand carts, and ladies with bundles balanced on their heads jostle and honk for the right of way.
Is there no escape?
Sidewalks are jammed with women selling fruits and vegetables; vendors hawk lottery tickets, phone cards, belts, shoes, you name it. Dozens of boys and young men sit idly and chat on the sidewalk and implore every man to stop for a shoe shine or a shoe wash. The destitute, the handicapped, the gnarled and the stricken simply beg.
Is there no peace?
I join the flow of Holy Week worshippers and pass through the outer gates of the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Instantly, I get it!
The sudden and unexpected contrast between chaos and calm, penury and peace, selfishness and selflessness, blare and beauty.
The grounds of the Cathedral are bustling but serene. Dressed in white gowns and shawls and turbans, pilgrims pause to read and pray alone under a shady tree or in a remote corner of the compound.
In the bright courtyard of the Christ Church, the large congregation sings aloud, a cheerful, joyful noise of music: hands clapping, drums drumming, dancers dancing.
At the St. Mary’s Church in Axum, “the center of the universe for Ethiopian Christians,” parishioners join a solemn, murmuring procession and follow the gold-clad priests and a child with a tiny bell.
On Lake Tana, near Bahir Dar, the celibate priests gather and pray within the stone walls of their secluded island monasteries
Everywhere, the chanting and singing is pleasurable, devotional and authentic.
When I am at home, I hope my own devotional experience is authentic and sincere. Yet, until now, the secular-spiritual contrast for me is less convincing.
After a warm shower and a hearty breakfast, I dress in fine clothing and comfortable shoes, and leave my nicely-furnished home. I ride modern, efficient transportation, or in the past, I drove my late model automobile on traffic controlled streets. The synagogues are modern and climate controlled. The prayers are enthusiastic, the Rabbi articulate, and the congregation optimistic. Then I repair to my lovely home along busy, but clean, bright streets.
In synagogue, I haven’t escaped from the hideous to the holy. I just changed locations – from the comfortable to the comforting.
Now I get it.
For much of the world - especially for what is now called (politically correct) the “low income world” - the religious service is not a temporary change of location. It is an utterly distinct environment.
I enter an Ethiopian sanctuary now with a new sense of the power of place.
Someone once said that religion is the opiate of the masses. No. Religion for my Ethiopian hosts is not a drug. Religion is a place of dignity, a place of humanity, a place of hope.