Ethiopia: Meskel - Ethiopia's Unique Celebration of the Finding of the Cross


Every year, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians celebrate a special holiday on September 28, (would have been on September 29, had it been a leap year) called Meskel. Meskel is a Geez word; which literally means Cross. The holiday is celebrated in commemoration with the discovery of the true cross of Jesus Christ by the Roman empress Helena (St. Helena).

Legend has it, Helena, later known as Flavia Julia Helena Augusta, mother of Constantine the Great, was credited after her death with having discovered the fragments of the Cross and the tomb in which Jesus was buried at Golgotha. Helena later received the title of most Noble lady and coins with her name and this title, and her portrait, were struck in modest quantities.

The Meskel celebrations includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera in Amharic, based on the belief that Queen Eleni, as she is known, had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she should make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the True Cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it, the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.

Some allegedly say that the discovery of the True Cross is traditionally believed to have been in March, but Meskel was moved to September by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to avoid holding a festival during Lent, in addition to the fact that the church commemorating the True Cross in Jerusalem was dedicated during September. There is also a speculation that Meskel replaced an older festival, with pagan and Hebraic associations, around the reign of Emperor Amda Seyon in the fourteenth century. «The most ancient meaning of these feasts - as was also the case in Israel - was no doubt seasonal: the month of September (Meskerem) marked the end of the rains, the resumption of work, and the reopening of communications.

The main national feast is held in Meskel Square, a huge square in Addis Ababa named and dedicated particularly for the celebration of the feast, with a semi-circular stadium viewing area for tens of thousands of people. The celebration is presided over by bishops and civic leaders. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists come to Ethiopia every year to witness these remarkable ritual. Priest and church deacons sing songs in Ethiopian ancient language, Geez, with distinctively Ethiopian music arrangement called Yaredawi Zema. For the record, Meskel is recognized as an intangible heritage of the world by the UNESCO.

While the celebrations in the capital are large, Meskel is a time when many people living in urban areas return home to villages. Neighborhoods and villages celebrate the Meskel in thousands of local celebrations. Meskel is said to be particularly valued and well celebrated among Gurage people. Adult children, especially those who have moved away from the village in search of their fortunes, are expected to provide a cattle or goat for their parents to slaughter for Meskel. Those children who do not honor this responsibility may be cursed for failing their families. The slaughter itself is part of the feast. An elder male blesses the animal with the sign of the cross, a request that God save the people in the coming year and provide prosperity for the children who provided the animal. The men take a shot of local alcohol, and the bull is slaughtered. The bull has to fall to the right side, or at least be turned afterward on that side. The meat is prepared in a variety of ways and shared with celebrants, and can last a week. Celebrations there generally mix Catholic and Orthodox except at liturgies, though in some places, Orthodox will only eat the meat if it has been blessed and slaughtered by an Orthodox man, since he will usually hold to a more rigorous fast throughout the year than would be required of a Catholic.

Ethiopia is a land of mystery. The Book of Enoch, the seventh generation of Adam who is mentioned in the bible as a righteous man and was ascended in bodily form to heaven, was found written in Geez in Ethiopia. Whenever and wherever something ancient is mentioned, the name Ethiopia is usually mentioned along. Long before the advent of Christianity (the birth of which followed the Crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ), Judaism has been exercised in many parts of the Ethiopian highlands. Ethiopia, a name mentioned in the bible over 43 times was one of the conspicuous nations of the old world; especially in the Middle East; where you see the birth place of the two dominant religions in the world (Islam and Christianity).

The Ethiopian Orthodox church; whose religious ceremonies are, by and large, distinctly extensions of the Old Testament (Judaism) is endowed with various rituals.

Ethiopian orthodox liturgy has written documents that dates back to the time of Queen of Sheba; who has allegedly given birth to Minilik I; from the famous king of Solomon of Israel.

Legend and Ethiopian ancient chronicles has it, when Minilik was 20, he went to Jerusalem to pay courtesy visit to his father-King Solomon. Refusing to stay in Israel, Minilik came back to Ethiopia accompanied by a couple of hundred priests who were told to teach the ways of the lord to his son and the people of Ethiopia-who used to believe in sun and other gods at the time. These priests ; who belonged to the tribe of Dan, were not happy to leave the ark of the covenant behind. They plotted to take it and managed to bring it secretly to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes that the ark is still in Ethiopia; in a small chapel that is strongly guarded by God elect priest 24/7 at Axum. Graham Hancock, the author of 'the sign and the seal', is perhaps the only scholar who strongly believes that the true ark is not in American Museum- as depicted in the movie -Indiana Jones. He says, It is in Ethiopia. Ethiopians have 44 replicas of the true Ark of the Covenant; which he believed were crafted in the ancient days to conceal the original one.

(God Bless Ethiopia and Happy Holiday to Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Believers)

Editor's Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The Ethiopian Herald.

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