Our time with Episcopal Relief and Development, which is trying to shake the unshakable acronym "ER-D," ended with dinner on Friday night. Having already bid farewell to three of our colleagues, the rest of us had our last meal together. With one or two exceptions, the rest of us would be getting on planes the next day to make our way somewhere else. Five of us on that pilgrimage (Gay, Rebecca, Jacob, Jennifer, and I) were headed to Kenya. But that conference doesn't begin until Monday, which left us with 36 hours to kill. Why not Ethiopia?
Why not, indeed? We met six other North Americans, who got an extra day's start here, late last night. We leave first thing tomorrow. In between was a wonderful day seeing a part of the world that I am only just beginning to understand.
Until the Italians took over during WWII, Ethiopia had pretty much been an independent, self-governing state since antiquity. Having regained its independence, it is again a proud country with an heritage like none other.
In Ghana, Christianity came to its golden shores with the Portuguese and trade in spices, gold, and human lives. In Ethiopia, Christianity has been the religion for centuries. Legend has it that the faith was brought here before 60AD, which means that the good news of Jesus Christ has roots here that are older than much of Europe. Befittingly, this distinct people have a distinct take on the faith we share. Having rejected Chalcedonian orthodoxy in the 5th century, Coptic Christians are monophysite, which means they believe that Jesus Christ was of only one nature--the divine overtook the human at the incarnation. Most Christians (western and eastern) probably don't realize that they are inheritors of the other approach--two natures without confusion or mixture--but around here difference like that are sources of pride.
We went to a monastery today and were allowed inside to see the church. It looked a lot like a Greek Orthodox Church with a big, colorfully painted screen separating the congregation from the "Holy of Holies." There was, however, an interesting section in the middle of what I would call the "nave" that was sectioned off for clergy. Apparently, there are many, many priests in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (I recently read Cutting for Stone, which suggested mass ordinations take place when a bag into which a bishop has spoken words is opened into a crowd of would-be priests.) Most notably, though, the Copts seem to have a much deeper appreciation for the Old Testament than any other Christians I know. Why? Because this is the land of the Hebrew Bible.
Cush. Abyssinia. The Lion of Judah. The Queen of Sheba. Moses' wife was an Ethiopian. They take those stories seriously because they are stories of their history and heritage. The stained glass windows depicting OT figures proudly dominate one side of the church. Want to know what ancient, semitic, indigenous Christianity looks like? Come to Ethiopia.
Later on, we went to the National Museum, where the remains of Lucy, the famous hominid, are on display. Actually, she isn't the oldest pre-human for us to look at. Humanity has its roots here for over 6 million years. (At last estimate, Lucy is only 3.18 million years old.) As our guide today told us, "When someone asks you why you went to Ethiopia, tell them that you wanted to see where you came from--that you wanted to go home." Over and over, he reminded us (sometimes in exaggerated ways) that we all come from here. That means that the stories of these people are, in a real way, the stories of my people and your people and all people.
People talk about going to the "Holy Land" and how the footsteps of Jesus and Paul and others come alive after seeing those places. I don't know; I haven't been there. But I can tell you that I can now see that there are direct and powerful connections between the most ancient stories of the bible and the modern world and that those connections come alive here. I still don't have a full appreciation for what they are, but I want to learn about them. I want to know what it feels like to claim the Hebrew Scriptures as part of my story--not merely in a spiritual sense but in a physical, biological, genetic, historic sense.