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  • Writer's pictureThe Rev. R. Jemonde Taylor

Endeavors in Ethiopian Spirituality

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

Saturday, January 7, 2023


What a blessing to be in Ethiopia as a family! We begin with gratitude for this sabbatical experience supported by the Lilly Endowment. Having Presiding Bishop Michael Curry visit Saint Ambrose on New Year's Day and pray for our family during this sabbatical pilgrimage experience was a wonderful way to begin the journey.

Our family arrived safely in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, after travel that began Wednesday, January 4 at 3 A.M. EST and ended at Thursday, January 5 at 7:15 A.M. Ethiopian time (11:15 P.M. EST on 1/4/23) after nearly 18 hours of travel. The flight from Washington, D.C. direct to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was 13 hours. We are so proud of our 3 year old daughter and one year old son who traveled like champions in the airport and on the airplane.

We are in Ethiopia during the most holy time of year for Christians. The time between Orthodox Christmas, celebrated on January 7, and Orthodox Epiphany, celebrated on January 19, marks more than two weeks of religious celebration with worship, singing, dancing, pilgrimage, and blessing. The rainy season is over and the weather is sunny and clear, with highs around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s.

This is our family's first time in Ethiopia and Jemonde's third time. His last trip was in January 2009, fourteen years ago. So much has changed. Addis Ababa now has a population of 10 million people, which is larger than New York City. The growth is recognizable with tall buildings, new development, museums, parks, infrastructure, public transportation trains, and immaculate landscaping. It's evident that billions of dollars have been invested in the city. The name Addis Ababa means new flower and flowers are everywhere, including the calla lily, the national flower of Ethiopia. The palm trees are gorgeous and our daughter made the connection between the palms on the trees and the Hosannas on Palm Sunday.

Our family spent the first day, January 5, meeting with our tour guide, Elegant Ethiopia Tours, and recovering from jet lag as it is an 8 hour time difference. We visited with two Ethiopian connections from the United States: one was a friend Jemonde met during his ministry in Dallas, TX who now lives in Addis Ababa; the second was the former owner of an Ethiopian restaurant in the Triangle who catered Ethiopian meals at Saint Ambrose, Raleigh.

The next day was Christmas Eve, January 6. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas in January because they follow the Julian calendar where as Western Christians follow the Gregorian calendar with Christmas being December 25. Christmas in Ethiopia is a majority religious holiday. One could argue that Christmas in the United States is a secular holiday with an emphasis on Santa Claus, commercialism, consumerism, and capitalism. In Ethiopia, millions of people gather in Orthodox churches around the country for a worship service that begins at 9 P.M. on Christmas Eve, January 6 and ends at 3 A.M. on Christmas Day, January 7. Later that day, people gather with family and friends to eat curried lamb, chicken, lentils, collards, cabbage, and other traditional food. Even the news anchors wear traditional Ethiopian Christmas religious clothing when they anchor the news on Christmas Day.

We visited Sheromeda Market, a large indoor, warehouse market in Addis Ababa, to purchase traditional clothes for both the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. We worked with a local vendor to purchase the traditional clothes for the entire family including women's dresses with prayer shawl head wraps called netela and men's clothes. Our family arrived at Kidist Mariam Church (Saint Mary's Church) in Addis Ababa just after sunset to see the beginning of the Christmas Eve and Day prayer service. The Ethiopian Pope, Abune Mathias, traditionally attends this service. Our family ended the day with a modified Episcopal Compline service in our hotel room, celebrating Epiphany (January 6) with scripture and prayers. That was our Orthodox Christmas Eve/Western Epiphany service because a worship service ending at 3 A.M. in an Orthodox Church is not a part of the expected night routine for an American toddler and pre-schooler.

Christmas Day, January 7, was a day of celebration. Our children played at a local playground with a castle. We received a treat when one of Jemonde's Ethiopian friends from Dallas who now lives in Addis Ababa invited us to her home to be with her family for Christmas. There was a home cooked Ethiopian traditional meal with curried lamb, chicken, beef, collards, cheese, injera bread, and cheesecake. Our children loved being a part of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony which was in her house. The ceremony included incense burning, roasting coffee beans, and pouring the coffee into small cups. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee in the Kaffa region. Our daughter loved pouring the coffee and being a part of the ceremony. The food was delicious, with the best injeria (Ethiopian bread), we have ever tasted.

The church liturgical chanting at the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day service that Jemonde heard inspired him and sparked an interest into delving deeper into Ethiopian liturgical music. Part of Jemonde's interest in this music and chant is present in the Ethiopian Evensong he wrote in seminary and currently uses at Saint Ambrose. Christmas afternoon, Jemonde revisited a document he had in his possession since 2009, Ethiopian Christian Liturgical Chant, An Anthology by Kay Kaufman Shelemay and Peter Jeffery. What immediately caught Jemonde's attention was the fact that the three liturgical chant modes are connected to a Person of the Trinity. The chant mode, zema, is connected with God the Father. The chant mode, 'ezl, is connected with God the Son. The chant mode, eraray, is connected to God the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit chant that is used for "all occasions." What a beautiful and dynamic image that different musical language and rhythm are traditionally associated with God as Trinity. Each Person in the Godhead has a different rhythm, wavelength, amplitude, and frequency for musical prayer communication. The traditional Ethiopian colors that now make up the Ethiopian flag have a Trinitarian meaning as well. Yellow is for God the Father and symbolizes light. Red is for God the Son and symbolizes the blood of his humanity. Green is for God the Holy Spirit and symbolizes new life. How can this be translated into a Western Christian context? Are these different musical prayer modes present in the Black American/African American Spiritual tradition?

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