Friday, September 26, 2014


Sharing a light for the Meskel celebration.

Before coming to Ethiopia, I've never heard of the story of the "true" cross being "found" before. That's how bad a Catholic I've. (Still am, I guess, but non-practicing and non-believing for nearly 10 years now.) 

Of course, I've seen movies and read (mostly fictional accounts) about the crusades -- one of the great human atrocities done in the name of religion -- and how people are even still looking for Bible/Jesus relics and all that sheez until now (think Da Vinci Code, the Knights Templar, the Illuminati and all those creepy cults), but no, I've never really heard about the true cross being found.

It's been found apparently. Yey. So, of course the Ethiopian Orthodox (aka, IHMO, archaic) Church celebrates this event quite regally, like it is THE national holiday. Called Meskel (Ge'ez for "cross"), it is an annual religious holiday (held on 17 Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar or September 27, Gregorian calendar, or September 28 in leap years) commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena (Saint Helena) in the fourth century. 

Waiting, with hundred other Ethiopians at the event's namesake Meskel Square in Addis Ababa.
As it is THE religious event of the year, it's but right that I experience it myself and where else but where the celebration is the biggest -- at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. Perfect timing as the Summer Language Training ends the day before eve of Meskel, I extended my stay for one more day in Addis and hoped that there'd be people I could go to the event with. 

Luckily, there were other volunteers, who were thinking the same thing. I was glad to tag along with Michael (HDP Leader in Adola), Judy & Aly (Accompanying partner, but also a GP, and Anesthetist in Hawassa), and Tom (Anesthetist in Arba Minch).
(R-L) With Michael, Judy, Tom, and Aly (only the top of his head is visible) -- all lit up!
Following, the advise from other volunteers, we came very early in the afternoon, and waited with the hundred other Ethiopians at the Meskel Square. It was still daytime, and I knew there was gonna be a large bonfire that required at least the darkness of dust time. 

That Christmas-tree like thing in the middle is gonna be the bonfire.
So why the bonfire? The large bonfire (demera) is apparently (as per Wikipedia) based on the belief that Queen Eleni had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she shall make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.

Let there be light.
It was quite dramatic. Seeing all those lit up candles, and the glow in the faces of all people accompanied by their singing of hymns - reminded me the joy of faith. Joy rising, in flames. Made me want to sing "You Light Up My Life" (the Debbie Boone cover), you know, out loud.
And then the big fire was lit! Quite dramatic, actually.
According to local traditions, this Demera-procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration. Charcoal from the remains of the fire is afterwards collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross (compare Ash Wednesday). Edward Ullendorff records a number of beliefs of the meaning of Demera, with some believing that it "marks the ultimate act in the cancellation of sins, while others hold that the direction of the smoke and the final collapse of the heap indicate the course of future events – just as the cloud of smoke the Lord over the Tabernacle offered guidance to the children of Israel (Exod. 40:34-38)."
One explanation for the high rank this festival has in the church calendar is that it is believed that a part of the true Cross has been brought to Ethiopia from Egypt. It is said to be kept at Amba Geshen, which itself has a cross shape. 
(Source: Wikipedia)
These local candles are really nice.
Very effective in killing boredom, you can shape them into submission. LOL.
Interestingly, other churches also apparently celebrate this event as Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. And this is how ignorant a Catholic I was, we even celebrate it in the Philippines, but in May, but with pageantry and minus the fire-burning, as the Santacruzan, the last day of Flores de Mayo. (No sheeeeet.) Who would think the Santacruzan was an actual religious festival, it's practically a beauty contest cum fashion parade.

Anyway, I'm glad that I got to experience Meskel, at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, with volunteer friends.

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