As a missionary, I am used to thinking that moving to another country, another culture, and another reality is an experience of giving and receiving, an enrichment of self as well as a gift of self. Yet, I never thought that my experience in Ethiopia would touch my faith and worldview so deeply.
My encounter with Ethiopia’s religious world and its Christian tradition came almost out of the blue out of a need to understand the people and the reality around me. In fact, the experience of faith is deeply rooted in the daily life of Ethiopians. So I began to attend Orthodox churches and discover a different way of believing, celebrating and living out faith in Jesus Christ. Ethiopia is a majority Christian country, with about 45 percent of the population belonging to the Tewahedo Oriental Orthodox Church, which we understand as Unitarian. This is ancient church that traces its origins back to the preaching of Frumentius, a young man who arrived on the shores of the kingdom of Axum from a shipwreck. It was linked for centuries to the Egyptian Coptic church from which it drew its sources, including liturgical sources that evolved into the first truly and purely African liturgy.
A liturgy is not simply a way of celebrating for it is an expression of a faith, of a relationship with the mystery of God. Moreover, it is linked to the sense of the sacred that permeates everything, even the garden around churches, the trees of which cannot be cut down, so making it suggestively a place of rest, of welcome, of hope.
Thus my encounter with the Ethiopian liturgy was marked by a profound respect, an eye opening to the dimension of the sacred, the mystery, as it is experienced and celebrated. The liturgies are sung in Ge’ez, the liturgical language, which forms a continuous dialogue between the celebrants and the assembly. These liturgies are based on melodies composed over the centuries and traced back to Yared, a legendary figure who developed sacred music from revelations directly received from heaven, and each moment is accompanied by ritual gestures that are deeply rich in symbolism and color.
Every person has the right to approach God, but he or she is also aware of his or her own reality of sin that leads him or her to seek -even physically- a different position in the assembly. Everyone and everyone has access to divine protection, even those who stand on the threshold of the Church, or even outside the fence, those who feel like sinners and sinners before the great mystery of God. I rediscovered a closeness to God, made up of mystery and not of understanding, made of heart and emotions and not simply of rationality, which comes from a deeply communal celebration, which is not left simply to the celebrant but as a work in which we all participate in our different roles.
A liturgy rich in symbols, such as on Holy Thursday, when the priests wash the feet of all the liturgy participants with vine leaves, tying Eucharistic symbols to the washing of feet. Each moment is linked with prayers and gestures, both by the assembly and the priests present.
True, women do not have access to the presbytery, as do all those who are not ordained, yet their participation is not diminished, indeed, it is the women with their white party dresses, with their white shawls (netala) who represent the majority of the participants in the hope of a better life, and a better future. Among them I found the advice and sharing I received very welcome on more than one occasion, but above all I sensed their deep and simple faith, which was perhaps a little magical, but surely enduring.
The whole Ethiopian Christian world moves around faith: celebrations are times for parties, of family; the church is a communal place because the celebration is of the community, because to God we turn together, to Him, whom the liturgy many times calls the loving God of humanity. Therefore, the Eucharistic liturgy is proclaimed as the “power and salvation, a memorial of your death that is with you. Moreover, we have seen the mystery of Your holy resurrection. Make us heirs of life. Through it, keep us in this hour at all times” (from the Ethiopian Missal).
This experience has changed my perception of the liturgy, and made me part of a believing community that celebrates a mystery that transforms and changes everyone’s life. It is an experience that has transformed my faith, and it is at the foundation of the deep joy of every encounter that mission allows us, the joy of growth and transformation that affects everyone and everyone, that affects every encounter with the life-loving God, and with every being that belongs to him.
by MARIOLINA CATTANEO