Blessing of the vine leaves and water used in the footwashing ceremony on Holy Thursday. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Ethiopian priest blesses pilgrims during Holy Week. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Ethiopian Church dignitaries march in solemn procession atop the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Dance of joy: Priests praise God on Easter by raising their voices — and feet — in celebration to the accompaniment of drums and sistrums. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Two pilgrims hold candles symbolizing the risen Christ. (photo: Gerald Ring)
For Easter Jerusalem puts on its biggest Christian celebrations. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world converge on Christendoms holiest sites. Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Copts, Jacobites, Anglicans, and more are there to compose the medley that is Christs faithful today.
Perhaps the most colorful and surprising of all these pilgrims are the Ethiopians. They are not usually seen in large numbers outside their homeland, so they bring to Jerusalems Easter observance excitement and gaiety that is unique among devout believers.
The Ethiopian presence in the Holy City is relatively small. Nonetheless, they stand out from the rest by their distinctive appearance, stately bearing, and smiling faces. They occupy two main centers in the city. The Monastery of Deir el-Sultan on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the one where they hold the Easter celebrations.
The Ethiopian faithful have shown their deep attachment to the Holy Land through a long history of pilgrimage despite the many difficulties of traveling from their remote, mountainous land. Today, that tradition continues, although many obstacles remain. Recurring drought and ongoing civil war are recent burdens carried by the Ethiopian faithful on this pilgrimage.
At Easter, Deir el-Sultan with its simple stone and plaster monastic cells takes on an air of jubilant activity and triumph. Lay pilgrims dress in white, desert hermits wear bright saffron-yellow robes, and the clergy don richly embroidered vestments.
Christianity somehow came to Ethiopia around the fourth century. Separated from the mainstream of the faith and eventually surrounded by a sea of Islam, their faith traditions developed within their African culture. Drums and dancing play an important role in celebrations, and bowing ones head to the ground is part of their prayer ritual. These cultural expressions of their faith are much in evidence during Holy Week.
Like other denominations, the Ethiopians begin the week with a Palm Sunday procession. The week comes to a triumphal climax on Saturday evening after sunset, when a procession of victory and joy marks the Saviors Resurrection.
Throughout the weeks observances, their rituals stress the Ethiopians attachment to the Holy Land, especially through the recitation and singing of psalms.
The Palm Sunday procession takes place around Deir el-Sultan, rather than on the route tradition says Jesus took and which is followed by the other Christian denominations. As the white-robed pilgrims walk behind the church elders in their multi-colored vestments, they sing hymns, including Psalm 113: From the rising of the sun to its setting, the Lords name shall be praised. The group circles the roof and sings these hymns of praise three times in honor of the Trinity. The ceremony ends with a special prayer of remembrance for the deceased.
On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday the monks, nuns, and other pilgrims gather in the ancient stone chapel to read portions of the Passion story, to recite psalms, and to chant the Magnificat. These observances continue throughout each of these three days. The congregation participates in these prayers and songs, and often the Ethiopians prostrate themselves in their expression of faith. With each series of prostrations, they recite the Lords Prayer twelve times.
Early Thursday morning preparations begin for the footwashing ceremony. A special tent is erected on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to provide shelter for the many people who will attend. Those who cannot find a place in the tent follow their custom during services of sitting on the ground or crouching around the tent opening.
Two bowls are prepared for the footwashing: one with water, the other with new vine leaves. In Ethiopia hyssop leaves are used for this purpose, based on the phrase in Psalm 51, Wash me with hyssop. In Jerusalem vine leaves have been used for centuries instead of hyssop, though the reason for this tradition is now lost. The archbishop uses them to wash the priests feet.
After a deacon reads verses 7 and 8 of Psalm 51, a priest reads the story of the Last Supper from Johns gospel (chapter 13). The archbishop then blesses the water with the sign of the cross, proclaiming the Trinity. Then, to the accompaniment of hymns, the archbishop washes the assembled priests feet.
At the conclusion of the footwashing ritual, the archbishop again uses a bunch of the vine leaves to sprinkle water over the congregation in a gesture of absolution. As he walks among the crowds to sprinkle them with water, many of the pilgrims bow and prostrate themselves in prayer. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, the Ethiopian Christians show their traditional smiles, as if in constant awareness of the essential joy at the root of their faith.
The Ethiopians spend Good Friday in prayer. Again, they punctuate their prayers with frequent bowing to the ground.
Holy Saturday, the climax of the festival, begins early in the morning with the chanting of the Song of Songs. Later in the day, the faithful gather at the archbishops residence about a mile and a half from the Old City. After singing He made peace by His Cross and receiving the archbishops blessing, the community makes its way back to Deir el-Sultan. Their Kawas, wearing a fez with a cross on top, leads their procession.
This procession attracts more attention than usual in this city where processions are commonplace. Their distinctive African appearance and manner testify to the rich variety of expression within the unity of one faith. The dazzling white, brilliant yellow, and richly embroidered priests garments are unlike most other Eastern Orthodox pilgrims, who wear black.
When the procession reaches the rooftop, preparations begin for the Resurrection celebrations early in the evening. As twilight falls over the white stone structures of Jerusalem, the atmosphere becomes charged with anticipation of the festivities. A deacon proclaims Psalm 98, verse 6: The Lord arose as one who riseth from a deep sleep. With the shout of Today there is joy on the Sabbath of the Christians because Christ rose from the dead, the triumphal Resurrection procession begins.
Led by monks and priests who dance, leap, and beat drums, the faithful each with lighted candle in hand parade around the dome of Saint Helenas Chapel in the center of the monastery atop the structure over the sites of Jesus Crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection.
Banging the stave of his office, the Kawas leads the Ethiopians. The throng of the faithful follow, moving around the courtyard three times. Somewhere in the middle of the procession, the archbishop is covered by his ornamental canopy.
In their African style, with abandoned care, the Ethiopians express their joy by filling the evening air with their music of voice and instruments. The numerous bystanders join the exuberant celebration of Christs Resurrection here, where it took place. The suffering of their countrymen in the arid mountains and plains of Ethiopia is temporarily forgotten or is it transcended? as they anticipate the eternal promise of the risen Christ, which defeats death itself.
Gerald Ring, a free-lance writer and photographer traveling extensively in the Near East, is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.