“I have walked from my village for 15 days to be here and as soon as the birth of Jesus is announced, then I must begin my walk back home…” a fellow pilgrim in Ethiopia informed me, with his pride evident. We were sitting on the ground pressed together amidst the 70,000 other pilgrims who had come intent on celebrating Christmas at the chapel of Bethlehem, which is one of the rock hewn churches in Lalibela.
It marked a high point on a remarkable pilgrimage through Ethiopia at the start of 2009, timed to join in the Ethiopian Christmas festivities at Lalibela which they celebrate on 7th January.
Like all pilgrims, we travelled open to discovering new things about this world and the people who inhabit it – open to being changed by what we discovered. Ethiopia is a fascinating country about the size of France and Spain put together. We encountered stunning African scenery, warm hospitable people, a rich history, the deep mysterious faith of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the poverty which comes from being part of the third world.
Ethiopia was home to the largely unknown Axumite Empire which dates back to the 2nd century BC. An African empire which, by the 3rd century AD, was a trading on equal terms with the Egyptians, Greeks, Byzantines and Persians. In the city of Axum itself we marvelled at the sheer beauty of the intricately carved 23 metre granite obelisks marking the burial grounds of this ancient kingdom.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is woven into the culture of this land. It broke from the western church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD over the nature of Christ. It is a church full of symbolism and ritual. Representations of the Holy Trinity, St George slaying the dragon and St. Mary (as they call her) holding the baby Jesus are painted on the walls of the Holy of Holies which stand at the centre of every church housing a replica of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ethiopian Church is a mysterious branch in the evolution of Christianity. It has been unaffected by the reformations and enlightenment which have sharpened the faith and practice of the western church. The Jewish roots to our faith are much more prevalent for them with circumcision, keeping both the Sabbath and Sunday as holy days and the centrality of the Ark of the Covenant being part of their tradition.
The Ethiopian Church claims to be the custodian of the original Ark of the Covenant which is kept in the northern town of Axum. Our pilgrimage ended with us joining in the candlelit procession of the Ark (or a replica!) around the town at 4.00am. We started in the ‘men only’ church of St. Mary of Zion, but when we reached the street we were joined by the women to form a procession numbering several hundred with the Ark leading us. Such was their pleasure at our party joining them that candles were thrust into our hands and I was moved to a position just in front of the Ark. I turned off my post-enlightenment mindset, to absorb the faith of those around me as we walked chanting the Jesus prayer in Amharic.
Central to our pilgrimage was Lalibela. The dozen churches, representing the Holy Land, were carved out of the rock during the reign of King Lalibela between 1167 and 1207. What makes these churches different from other rock hewn buildings (like Petra) is that they are intricately carved not just on the outside but also inside. They remain living places of pilgrimage and worship. Health and safety are yet to reach these ancient sites, yet amongst the throngs of pilgrims we were guided, helped and supported by everyone we encountered, with a warmth and generosity most often absent in crowds.
As with all pilgrimages there was space for fun, discovery and reflection. We celebrated the Eucharist on the steps of a monastery on an island in Lake Tana. The monks welcomed us but kept their distance, until we went and shared the peace with them – then the gap of culture, distance and theology fell away, as we greeted each other in the name of Christ. Was I changed by what we experienced? Yes, not least because I realised that with all our sophistication, economic success and modernity we seem to have forgotten how to walk for 15 days to greet the child of Bethlehem.
PS I have just agreed to lead another pilgrimage to Ethiopia leaving 1st January 2011. Please let me know if you are interested.