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Temqat: Celebrating Epiphany in Ethiopia

Processions, dances, drums and cymbals: celebrating the feast of Christ’s baptism in Addis Ababa.

It was cold and damp, a typical January morning in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Photographer Asrat Habte Mariam and I joined thousands of Ethiopian Christians in Jan Meda, the city’s largest open area, to observe the celebration of Temqat, the feast of Christ’s baptism. Watching the movements of the multitude, I remembered similar events some 35 years back when my mother wrapped me in traditional white dress and, excitedly, we traveled to this same field to commemorate the day Jesus was revealed as the Son of God in the waters of the Jordan.

This year’s celebration began on the eve of the feast. Tabots – small wooden coffers patterned after the Ark of the Covenant – were removed from the altars of the city’s churches and draped in colorful silks. Perched on the heads of priests and deacons, the sacred tabors were carried through the streets in procession.

In order to observe these rites, government offices and private businesses closed at 3 P.M. Many of the capital’s Christians followed the richly vested priests, deacons, monks and debteras (laymen practiced in liturgy or scripture), singing hymns in praise of God, the Blessed Virgin or a favorite saint. Parish choirs, a recent addition, added yet more color and sound.

In the old days – before the military deposed Emperor Haile Selassie (whose name means Might of the Trinity) in 1974 and a Marxist government, hostile to religion, was installed – the countryside was filled with processions such as these. Often the tabots were housed in tents erected on the banks of nearby rivers. There the faithful would beat drums and sing hymns in Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Church.

Tabots, the focus of this devotion, have played a significant role in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the principal faith of Ethiopia’s 55 million people.

Since time immemorial, Ethiopians have worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus, the Apostles and saints. According to an ancient tradition, Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, carried the Ark of the Covenant off to Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia. This same tradition holds that the Ark, which the Hebrews believed symbolized the presence of God among them, remains in Aksum, enshrined in the cathedral complex of St. Mary of Zion. Within the sanctuary of every Ethiopian Orthodox church, a tabot rests on the altar, a reminder of God’s revelation in Word and Sacrament.

As evening drew near, the city’s clergy, balancing the sacred tabots, slowly converged on Jan Meda, the “Field of the King.” In my youth Jan Meda was considered the preserve of the monarch. Situated on this majestic field is the Pool of Temqat. This pool, considered holy by believers, was to be blessed by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Paulos, after vespers and an all-night vigil.

Elaborately decorated tents, erected on the field for the occasion, housed the sacred tabots. Meanwhile, two rows of priests, deacons, monks and debteras were formed. Separated by a patch of earth, but facing one another, the clergy began to chant the psalms rhythmically, the pace set by a priest-drummer. Throughout the night, in the tents where the tabots rested, the clergy recited prayers and chanted the holy office while the laity kept vigil in the open air.

Early on the morning of the feast Abuna Paulos arrived at Jan Meda. Dressed majestically in white, and surrounded by his retinue of bishops, the Patriarch took the place of the emperor, the “King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah,” the central figure of these ceremonies when Ethiopia was considered a Christian realm.

The celebration began with a series of sermons, which contemplated the meaning of Jesus’ baptism and the significance of God’s words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) Delivered by monks from the country’s remote monasteries, these often lengthy reflections were followed by prayers and hymns.

Finally the Patriarch, encircled by his clergy, solemnly blessed the waters of the Pool of Temqat with a golden cross. The rite was simple: the Patriarch plunged the cross into the waters while the assembly chanted hymns and antiphons. The crowd stirred when the Patriarch sprinkled the dignitaries and faithful with the blessed water – with a hose!

As the liturgy wound down, groups of people began to sing and dance – this was now the people’s feast. Young girls were dressed in new but traditional dress, for there is a proverb, “a dress that is not worn first for Temqat can be shredded to pieces.” And like their wise elders, young men arrived wearing their Sunday best.

In the past, Temqat marked the coming of age for many young boys and girls in Ethiopia. Segregated in more traditional households, the celebration of Temqat offered boys and girls the opportunity to meet for the first time. And, as at balls and other rites of passage, many debutants secretly became sweethearts.

Much more serious matters were also traditionally arranged during Temqat. Marriages, usually initiated by the parents of the young man, were often finalized by the parents of both parties during these celebrations. Nowadays all this has changed with the secularization of society; perhaps I have grown old!

The singing and dancing continued well into the evening. Then, as darkness enveloped this city of three and a half million, the tabots, borne aloft on the heads of the clergy, were carried hack to their respective churches with great enthusiasm and joy – “Thus all Israel brought back the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord with joyful shouting, and to the sound of horns, trumpets and cymbals, and the music of harps and lyres.” (1 Chronicles 15:28)

Asseged Fesseha is the Projects Manager for our office in Addis Ababa.

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