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Easter in Addis Ababa, April 2014

Ethiopian Orthodox Church  Celebrating on the night of Holy Saturday

Close to Midnight on Holy Saturday, April 2014. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Photo taken by Odoh Diego Okenyodo

What a different Easter Weekend this has been – on so many levels.  In Ethiopia most Christians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and it has been interesting to be immersed in the city during the holy week.  The work I have been engaged in has been on a secular, social level, and yet the spiritual has been alive, so alive.

During Lent many Christians fast.  Here in Ethiopia the fasting is very much like the way the Moslems do during Ramadan.  Everyone knows that the members of the Orthodox church are fasting.  One evening I was out for dinner with one of the colleagues who is a vegetarian.  She asked for a meal with no meat.  The waitress immediately asked, “Fasting? Orthodox?”.  My colleague replied, “No, vegetarian.”   The waitress repeated her question, and so we smiled and said, “Yes, Orthodox.” because it was easier.  Last night we went to a restaurant with a buffet, and the food on one side was marked ‘Fasting Food’ and the other ‘Non Fasting Food’. The non-fasing food have no meat and no eggs.  Through out the week there were subtle signs that it was Holy Week.

I am not sure what happens on Good Friday because we worked the whole day.  I know people went to church, but I am yet to do my research.  Most of the local staff were not at work, and the area around the Institute for Security Studies, where we are working was very quiet.

Holy Saturday is very different from the way I have experienced it anywhere.  Early in the morning, the Priests from each Orthodox congregation, together with a Deacon or two, go out into the community.  The Deacon carries long, flattened reeds, and they walk around ringing a bell.  The Christians open the doors of their homes and receive reeds, which they wrap around their heads.  Everywhere we went on Saturday we would see people walking around Addis with a reed wrapped around their heads.  The reeds symbolise Jesus’s grave-clothes.

Abel celebrating Holy Saturday

Our Ethiopian colleague, Abel, celebrating Holy Saturday. Photo taken by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

And the most important Easter service is at midnight on Holy Saturday (see picture at the start of the post). I missed that celebration but some of my colleagues attended the beginning.  The whole community gathers at church – they start with song, and then at midnight they go into prayer – and have a 3 hour-long service.  It is believed that Jesus rose at around 3 am.  They do not go to Church after that.

This morning, Easter Sunday, I went on a different journey.  I wanted to go the Church they way I normally do.  I grew up Anglican and so I went to the church that we went to when I lived in Addis – St. Mathews Anglican Church, between Aratkilo and the Ras Amba Hotel.  I believe the last time I was in that Church was Christmas Day 1980!

St. Mathews Anglican Church, Addis Ababa

The Altar at St Mathews Anglican Church, Easter Sunday, 2014, Addis Ababa Ethiopia – picture taken by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

The service was much smaller and simpler than the last service I attended at St. Mathews.  When I was last in Addis, St Mathews was very High Church.  So while it  followed the Anglican tradition that I had grown up with, they also included the burning of incense, bells and the like in the service.  I remember the first time I went there it felt like I was at a Catholic Mass.  Well the church has changed so much!  It is more Anglican Evangelical – no incense, no bells – and the songs are more modern.  I noticed how the congregation had fewer Africans, and more Australians and New Zealanders.  It was the same in many ways and different in others.

I enjoyed the service.  And as I sat there, I kept thinking of my late parents and brother and sister – Fay and Chris.  I felt their presence.  I kept thinking of Aunty Lerlyn, a good family friend born in Trinidad who is married to a Ugandan and is Ugandan.  She was very active in the church.  And the style of service reminded me of my congregation at the Bellville Presbyterian Church in Cape Town – and had touches that reminded me of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala.  As I left I reflected on the different Easter traditions.  I wondered if we had lost anything, those of us who have fewer outward rituals to keep us grounded.

Happy Easter everyone.  Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed.

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