HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION IN ETHIOPIA
Ethiopia was well known to the ancient writers. It is mentioned in the Bible more than 38 times by both Old Testament and New Testament writers. So, in accordance with the Biblical traditions of the ancient Israel, Ethiopia is described as the land of “CUSH” which was located by the “RIVER NILE” (Gen. 2: 13). The Septuagint (The Greek Translation) also describes it after the name of “ETHIOPIA” which has the same location.
Apart from the Biblical traditions, many historians knew Ethiopia and described its geographical location, referring towards the south of Egypt, which was populated by both Hamitic and Semitic stocks of people. According to the ancient Egyptian tradition, it was known as the “LAND OF PUNT” located at the end of the World, and they said “Land of Ghost. ”
Homer (Greek poet of the 8th century B.C.) knew of this historical land and its people, when he said “ETHIOPIA, THE LAND OF SUN BURNED FACE.” He described inhabitants again, as “THE BLAMELESS RACE.”
Herodotus (Greek historian, 485-25 B.C.) praised the nation of Ethiopia as “:THE MOST JUST MEN”.
The legal Source of Ethiopia starts the introduction of Judaism to Ethiopia is recorded in the KEBRE NEGEST (The Glory of the Kings). This book reflects heavily its focal point upon two historical events:
A. The birth of Menilek, Son of Solomon, King of Israel and the Queen Sheba of Ethiopia. (970-33 B.C.)
B. The Ark of the Covenant which was brought to Axum from Jerusalem by the Levites. (946-B.C. ?)
Apart from the Kebre Negest, there are vast reliable written sources which describe that Ethiopia had good relationship with the Nation of Israel. According to Biblical Sources, the relationship began in the time of Moses, which continues perpetually throughout the time of the New Testament era. (Numbers 12:1; I Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chron. 9:1-12; Mt. 12:42; Acts 8:27-39).
These sources start that next to the nation of Israel only Ethiopia knew, and confessed the Almighty God (The God of Abraham) and worshiped Him regularly. For example, The psalmist said: ETHIOPIA SHALL SOON STRETCH OUT HER HANDS UNTO GOD’S. (Ps. 67:31 68).
This witness affirms the earnest prayer of Ethiopia, which was based on her impeccable faith in the Almighty God. Even among the people of Israel, the Ethiopians seem to be more dear to the Almighty God than they. For example, Amos, the Prophet, bears witness of this truth, when he says: “ARE YOU NOT LIKE THE ETHIOPIANS TO ME, O PEOPLE OF ISRAEL?” (AM. 9:7).
IN THE TIME OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
St. Luke assured us in his witness that the Ethiopian received the Good News first hand from St. Philip the Evangelist at the very beginning of the Christian era ( Acts 8:26-39)). Therefore, it is believed that the Church in Ethiopia was inspired, preached, guided and consolidated, not by any means of the human power; but it was simply by the revealing power of the Holy Spirit!
As the result of this supernatural event, the Christian Faith was deeply rooted in that land, beginning from the Imperial palace down to the grass-roots Community villagers, across the.. Horn cuff Africa
So, as soon as Christianity struck its first root and held the ground within the Communities, both paganism and Judaism lost their popularity and eventually diminished from the public sight. Then the pagan temples, as well as the Jewish Synagogues, were employed by Christian Communities to serve them as Church buildings. For example in this period of radical change of time, the Great Synagogue, Zion of Akusm, was dedicated to be the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Ethiopian kingdom and became the vital source of both Old Testament and New Testament Theological studies, as well as the center of cultural and political research about the ancient Ethiopian civilization. This Synagogue was the traditional Holy Shrine of the Ark of the Covenant, which had been brought to Ethiopia by Menilek I, Son of King Solomon of Israel and Queen Sheba of Ethiopia.
Origen, the Christian scholar; Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea; St. John Chrisostom, Patriarch of Constantinople; and St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria — were all amazed to learn that Christianity in Ethiopia was enjoying freedom from the very beginning of Its era. During this time, the Apostolic Fathers were still struggling with the Roman Imperial power as well as with the believers of Judaism, Paganism, Gnosticism and the rest of ancestral religious bazaars across the Mediterranean world and throughout the entire world.
Particularly Eusebius, the great writer on Church history, is highly admiring in his compositions, of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Ethiopian Church, when he describes
” The Ethiopian, who was the first of the Gentiles to receive from Philip by revelation the Mysteries of the Divine Word and was the first to return to his native land and preach the Gospel of the knowledge of God of the Universe and the sojourn of our Savior which gives life to men, so that by him was actually fulfilled the prophecy which says,’Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands to God’ “(Ps. 67:31 68).
In the second quarter of the Fourth Century, King Ezana of Ethiopia appeared to the leading figure of the Church organization. (352-359 A.D.) This was a period of time of the radical shift in Church life to establishing Christianity as the State Religion of Ethiopia declared by the king. The king himself initiated the historical link between Aksum and Alexandria when he sent out Frumentius to St. Athanasius, the patriarch, in order to send a bishop to his kingdom. Athanasius, on his part, after learning the need of spiritual leader to that land, consecrated Frumentius, the private secretary of the king, after the name “Abbe Selama” as the first Bishop of Ethiopia.
1. At the arrival of Abba Selama in Aksum, the Christian communities renamed him “Kesate Berehan” (The ILLUMINATOR).
2. King Ezana and his brother Saizana changed their former names and were renamed “Abreha” and “Asbeha.”
3. The Christian Faith was declared to be the State religion.
4. The sign of the Cross was minted on the Aksumite coins. By doing this, King
Abreha became the first sovereign in the world to engrave the sign of the Cross on his coins. The second coin with the sign of the Cross was minted by Emperor Valintinian of Rome in 375 A.D.
THE CHURCH AND THE COMMUNITY (470-600 A.D.)
480 A.D. The coming of the nine Saints to Ethiopia from the Mediterranean world, seeking the religious freedom was a vital source of Church history as the Spiritual leaders and the confessors of the Royal Families as well as of the local Communities, the Monastery Founders, Community Organizers, and the Holy Scripture translators. By doing so, these nine Monks became the instruments for social fabric between the Church and the State
THE ETHIOPIAN DARK AGES AND THE HISTORICAL LEADERSHIP OF THE CHURCH (600-968 A.D.)
During the mighty flood of the Islamic storm over the Horn of Africa. Only Ethiopia remained being a Christian Island.
During these dark ages, the Islamic external war and the equally aggressive internal civil war of the Jewish movement were a heavy blow to the historical Royal Dynasty which was knocked down to the ground for 40 years. In this critical period of national trial. the Church of Ethiopia took the initiative to demonstrate the resurgent Spirit within the nation, in order to encounter the crises and preserve liberty. So the Christian faithful succeeded in restoring the mighty power of the Cross of Christ and the Crown, which are the historical symbols of national dignity for the Nation of Ethiopia.
PERIOD OF CHURCH RENAISSANCE (968-1261 A.D.)
In the last quarter of the 12th Century, the Christian movement of Church Renaissance was led by St. TekleHaimanot of Etissa.
Abbuna Tekle Haimanot, the Preacher, Teacher, Confessor and the Founder of Debre Libanos Monastic Order was the leading saint, among the many saints in his time, to revive Christian Communities in Ethiopia. He made an extensive journey across the nation and confronted peacefully the Pagan rulers whom he converted to the Christian Faith. Particularly, his apostolic mission to the south of Ethiopia claimed great victory with the conversion of Motelemy, the King of the Pagan Wolamo tribes.
In such manner, his mission and the rest of his contemporary prominent Church Fathers restored the vital source, effectively, of the un-interrupted freedom of both national liberation and the Christian Faith of the Apostolic Church in Ethiopia. Therefore, it was believed by the entire nation that its existence was dependent on the well-being of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the only source of resurgent Spirit for the Ethiopian People.
REPEATED STRUGGLES TOWARD THE FUTURE
The 16th Century decisive war waged by the fanatic Moslem, Gragn, Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, against Church and State of Ethiopia caused their near demolition over 15 years of continual destruction; and yet, finally, the Church and State succeeded in claiming victory over their mutual enemy.
This kind of struggle sporadically took place throughout centuries, and it occurred from internal and external forces. However, the Church does not interrupt its supply to the nation of her Spiritual nourishment as well as the Cultural education, which affirms the national identity as a civilized, historical nation, and as the People of God, who were saved by the Redemptive Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and hold the Apostolic Church in authority.
“Ethiopian Christianity is playing an increasingly important role in the arena of modern Africa. With a rich and original heritage of a Church whose history spans almost two thousand years, it can make a unique contribution to the life of twentieth-century Christendom.” (E. S. Molinar)
As my best friend, the Rev. Dr. E. S. Molinar indicates clearly, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was and is the contributor of educational modernity to the nation of Ethiopia.
This modernity is the result of the ascetic order of the church Fathers, as well as of the ardent nationalist leaders of the state. Both of them served together hand in hand for their Church and State of Ethiopia.
In this way, during the time of war and time of peace, there were no separation or distinction between the two; because the enemy of the Cross of Christ is also the enemy of the Crown of the State.
For example, the sign of the cross was minted on the national coins. Therefore, all these sacred objects that we are going to visit right now, belongs to both. So, this undivided unity must be to understand by the emerging generation of Ethiopia, as well as by friends across the globe.
Now, “What more shall I say? There is not enough time for me to speak of” Both the ascetic Fathers of the church across the nation and the ardent national leaders of the state:
Let. Me Mention Some Church Fathers:
Abba Selama, the first Bishop – 346 A.D.:).
Abba Aregawi of Damo, founder of the monastery – 501 A.D.
St. Yared, the hymnologist, who created the church music on the bases of the Holy Scriptures – 534 A.D.
Abba Eyesus Moa, the great scholar of Haique monastery – 1260 A.D.
Abba Teklehaimanot of Debrelibanos, the apostolic father, teacher, preacher, confessor, and monastery founder – 1215 – 1313 A.D.
Abba Giorgis of Gasicha, great spiritual leader and writer of the book of spiritual life 15th Century
Abba Philipos of Bizen, monastic order organizer – 1323 – 1406 A.D.
Abba Samuel of Waldiba, the anchorite dweller – 15th Century And so many others.
Leaders of the Nation:
Emperor Axone, who declared the Christian faith as state religion – 313-339 A.D.
Emperor Kaleb, the faith defender – 500-29 A.D.
Emperor Lalibela, the rock church builder – 1140-79 A.D.
Emperor Zerayakub, the author and writer of Christian Theology – 1426-59 A.D. Emperor Fasiladas, the Christian education reformer (1635-70) – 1624-59 A.D.
And his Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, the founder of the Ethiopian Church patriarchate in Addis Ababa who served to his last breath for his church and state. By doing so, His Imperial Majesty, appeared to be the great pioneer of martyrs in the sight of national and international thinkers – 1922-66 A.D.
Finally, in the knowledge of this, I would like to extend a hearty invitation to all of you, to come to our Orthodox Church in Evanston to celebrate with us our Lord’s birthday on Friday January 6th from 9:00 p.m. 1:00 a.m. and see how the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the historical apostolic tradition.
So, beloved friends, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU IN PEACE
This Speech was delivered by Father Michael Taffesse
On the Occasion of the Ceremonious Opening Exhibition of The Sacred Art of the
Ethiopian Orthodox Church Heritage, at The DuSable Museum,December 25, 1994.
Father Michael’s full name:
The Very Reverend L.L.T. Michael N. Taffesse, Kommos of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church