My Intriguing Visit to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church—A First-Time Coptic Visitor’s Perspective

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What a remarkable experience I had visiting the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church! A friend of mine gave my name to an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, suggesting that I give the after-church sermon to the youth. He invited me to attend the service, which I did, and by the end of it I had so many questions I wanted answered due to all the intriguing things I witnessed! Here are all the fascinating things I learned, and my observations upon further reflection:

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TRINITY ICON?

One of the first things I noticed was an icon near the middle of the “iconostasis,” which had what appeared to be three men who all looked the same, and each one of them was holding what appeared to be a globe. From far away the image reminded me of a similar icon from the St. Anthony Monastery, which depicts Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, receiving the souls of the departed in their bosoms in paradise.

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So I thought to myself, maybe that is what this represents? But why? Why would this be the main icon featured above the sanctuary? In the Coptic Church our center icon above the royal door is always the Mystical Supper of Christ. Here is the one from my church:

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But then I looked even closer at the icon and noticed that on each corner there was some sort of depiction—what appeared to be the four incorporeal beasts, who are depicted in Scripture as being around the throne of God. Immediately I felt certain that this was a depiction of God—the Holy Trinity! My suspicion was confirmed by the priest later when I had the chance to ask him.

Now, for a Coptic person, the notion of depicting the Holy Trinity in such a manner, where the three distinct Persons of the Holy Trinity are shown in any form likely leads to an immediate feeling that something heretical is happening.

However, to my Coptic friends, would you believe me if I told you the Coptic Church is in the minority on this, among all Orthodox Christians?

Here are some Eastern Orthodox icons depicting the Trinity:

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Updated comment added 3/23/17: An Eastern Orthodox reader provided me a note regarding some of the nuances of the Eastern Orthodox Perspective on this matter, and I find it helpful to add that here: “The Hospitality of Abraham icon is the only one universally accepted by the Eastern Orthodox. The others are not and while some churches do have them, there are large swathes that are completely opposed to them. This is under the idea that while the Son and Holy Spirit have appeared to us, God the Father has not and so it is inappropriate to have any likeness of Him. We get around this with things like mandorlas and other such things to depict holiness or spiritual truths that cannot be seen solely with our eyes.”

Now, Copts might feel here a necessity for an explanation. And why shouldn’t they? The Bible says clearly “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). I confronted this issue in my book Orthodox Afterlife, inquiring as to whether we will see the Father after we die. I will not answer that question here, but in my search to answer this question from a Scriptural and Patristic perspective, let me tell you that I was surprised to learn that depicting or even seeing the Father is not entirely opposed. In fact, among those in favor of such a notion is St. John Chrysostom, who did not oppose the interpretation that some visions of God in the Old Testament (e.g., the Ancient of Days in the Book of Daniel, etc.) actually were visions of the Father. Those in support of such a proposition usually say that the Father is not ever fully visible in His full essence (a point which St. John Chrysostom argues is also true of Christ), but that what may be seen of the Father (as is the case for Christ) is some perceivable glimpse. Father Tadros Yacoub Malaty, the well-respected and prolific writer, in his commentary on the Book of Revelation seems to likewise make a similar argument, saying: “If I cannot drink the whole river, would that mean that I couldn’t drink of it in moderation and as much as it is convenient for me?” I am not trying to answer the question here for all Orthodoxy, or on behalf of the Coptic Church—this is well above my pay-grade/rank, whatever you want to call it. I am simply exposing a different perspective I had never had before or been taught.

Honestly, I am so astonished that, in my experience (and this may not be the same for everyone else), the Coptic Church in various ways all these years has adamantly impressed upon me that it would be nearly (if not definitely) heretical to teach otherwise. I wonder if this (and the lack of “Trinity icons” in the Coptic Church) is partially due to the presence of Islam in Egypt for 1400 years, and maybe the desire not to depict the Holy Trinity so as not to give the impression that we believe in three Gods. I do not know, and I am in no position to make any authoritative claim on the matter, but just thinking  writing aloud.

 


 

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5 OR 7 DEACONS AND PRIESTS, MAXIMUM, USUALLY

I learned that in the service there were only 5 people “serving” the altar: 2 priests, and 3 deacons. I inquired about this, since in the Coptic Church it is common to see 4-6 “deacons” in the altar, 1 or 2 priests, and like 50 kids and several older “deacons” outside the altar leading the congregation. Turns out in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (and remember, their inception and practices were derived from what they call their “mother” Church, the Coptic Church, over 1000 years ago) they really only have three roles among the diaconate: Reader, Subdeacon, Deacon. Chanters are traditionally not even really considered to be among the minor orders of the diaconate, and this actually shows in a very beautiful way:

WOMEN CHANTERS

In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it is common, I am told, that most of the chanters who lead the congregation in the service are actually women. Just as traditionally the role of chanter is a congregation role and not really a role among the diaconate, so it is not considered a violation of any rite or rubric to have women sing aloud leading the congregation. And instead of a bunch of young male children standing in the “Chorus” section of the church leading the congregation in worship, women chanters stand there and lead usually in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I am truly sad that this is not the case in the Coptic church, even though so many Eastern Orthodox Churches and here in one of our sister (or some may call “daughter”) Orthodox churches women have a prominent role in the service.

DEACONESSES

I was also pleased to hear that in the priest service books available in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today, there is a clear and frequent reference to the role of deaconesses. In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox priest at this particular parish seemed to have a number of things to say about what he believes was the early rite regarding the deaconess: he said they used to be older women, often widows, and would frequently assist in the service and even would be present when a priest would take confessions of a young woman, in order to retain an air of propriety and comfort for the confessor. The fact that this rite is so deeply embedded in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and also due to the fact that this church is derived from the Coptic Church, affirms that the role of the deaconess truly was more prominent in the past in the Coptic rite. According to His Grace Bishop Mettaous, the late abbot of the Syrian Monastery in Egypt, in his book “Sacramental Rites in the Coptic Church,” the role of deaconess was indeed prevalent in the Coptic Church until about the 13th century, and then revived again by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. (You can find that book and more information at this link.)

 


 

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ALTAR—A.K.A. “MENBER”—A.K.A.—TABERNACLE 

The Ark of the Covenant

You will notice to the right of the photo provided above you will find an elevated area with a cross on top. I am told that underneath that altar covering is a miniature replica of the Ark of the Covenant, upon which the Mysteries lay during the service. The reason for this is that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a long-held belief that the Ark of the Covenant is not lost as Indiana Jones would think it to be, but that in fact it resides in a chapel in Aksum, Ethiopia, heavily guarded for hundreds of years by a “succession of monks who, once anointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die” (you can read more on that here.) (As a side note: I remember once at Emory, in a class dedicated to an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical scholar who lived a while ago, where the professor was an Orthodox Jew and there were some Jewish students in class, I mentioned the fact that the Ark of the Covenant isn’t lost at all…. because it is an Aksum…  No comment on how that was received lol. As some of my friends say when I do things like that: “Only you John,” or, “That’s such a John thing to do.” Yes yes, I know. Whatever. )

The Ciborium (Canopy) Above the Altar)

When I saw the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s altar, I was astounded to see that it conformed more to the early Church rites than we currently maintain in the Coptic Church. I am not surprised, particularly since the Ethiopian Church was handed the faith from the Copts early on, so I presume that much of what we see are remnants of ancient Coptic rites that have been retained for centuries.

Specifically, if you will notice, the altar base is surmounted by a canopy, also known as a ciborium (derived from a Greek word), which rests upon four pillars that stand at each corner of the altar. Along the pillars is a place to hang curtains all around. The purpose of these curtains was to keep the Mysteries, well, mysterious. This is an ancient custom. If you look at one of the oldest churches in Egypt, the Abu-Serga church in Old Cairo, you will find a ciborium under which curtains used to hang. Moreover the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is well known to have had curtains around its altar hanging from a ciborium. There is also ample evidence from the seventh and eighth centuries regarding such curtains in Roman churches. Such curtains were sometimes given as gifts by archbishops to others. (I derived much of this information from a book by Fr. Tadros Malaty, which you can find here.)

In practice, I was so pleased to see the reverence given to the altar and the Mysteries, shrouding them in mystery and maintaining an air of sanctity, which unfortunately is a far cry from what I see today in the Coptic Church, where we have live video feeds broadcasting around the globe the Mysteries for all to see, whether the eyes watching or those who are baptized or not. I reached out to the Coptic pope’s secretary and our own bishop on this matter, and yet, while it is admittedly not in accordance with our traditional rites, the current practice nonetheless continues.

Here is an example of a Coptic altar today, which is common. Sometimes there are Coptic altars with a ciborium yet with no curtains. I have never personally seen a modern Coptic altar with a ciborium and/or curtains.

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What was additionally moving was that during the distribution of communion, the priest used a special shrouded “mini-altar” (my word, not his) and brought it outside for the congregants to partake in. As is traditional, there was no such thing as the congregants going behind the iconostasis (which I write about here) to partake of communion, but instead they all came to the priest who housed the Mysteries in this and distributed from the center of the church just outside the royal door:

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This again reflected a practice that is in line with the traditional rite for the Mysteries to remain covered. If even during the service the deacon used to call out to the congregants who were not baptized and asked them to leave (not because we didn’t like them, but because the Holies are only for the holy, baptized members of the one Body through the Spirit), then why are we now doing something so inconsistent with tradition, while our sister/daughter church retains the tradition we likely passed to them those many centuries ago?

*By the way, while our liturgical texts no longer have a reference to the deacon asking non-baptized congregants to leave the church (although such a remark is often retained in Eastern Orthodox service books although often the remark is passed over and not said), the Coptic Church does retain mention of this in its ordination rite of the subdeacon, whose role is traditionally to guard the doors. After the consecration, the Archdeacon asks the subdeacon to “watch over the doors of the house of God” and then mentions the ancient liturgical practice—the deacon asks the catechumens and even those who should not receive the holy Mysteries to depart, and the subdeacon is in charge of making sure that instruction is heeded: “When the deacon proclaims ‘Let none of the catechumens stand here nor anyone who does not receive of the holy mysteries,” then you shall pay attention to watch with great care over the doors of the church.” The text from the official app of the Southern Diocese, Coptic Reader (obtained 3/17/2017) shows the following:

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BEHIND THE ALTAR  / APSE ICON—THE MAIN ICON VISIBLE IN THE DIRECTION OF PRAYER TOWARDS THE EAST BEHIND THE ALTAR

Traditionally in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the icon in the apse, or behind the altar, is one of the Apocolypse (derived from the Book of Revelation, or as it was traditionally known, the Apocalypse of John). The Eastern Orthodox usually have what they call the “Theotokos of the Sign,” which is an icon of the Holy Theotokos bearing Christ in her bosom, and is supposed to recall two things: (1) the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, upon which God would appear; and (2) recalling the moment of conception and the “sign” given of the Messiah’s birth (“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” [Isaiah 7:14]).

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You will notice that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is more in line with the Eastern Orthodox Church in having an image of the Theotokos behind the altar. I’m not sure if this is the common practice, but I would imagine so. I asked about who the two faces were around St. Mary, and I was told they were meant to represent the Archangel Michael and the Archangel Gabriel. Then I saw what appeared to be an obelisk, so with wishful thinking I thought that maybe this was to pay homage the “mother church”—the Coptic Church, but the priest quickly shot that down and said Ethiopians have similar obelisks in their ancient architecture as well.

Interestingly, they seem to have a keen interest in the Archangel Gabriel. I observed an icon of the three youth in the furnace (from the Book of Daniel). I asked who the priest believed the angel to have been, and immediately it was noted that they believed it to be Gabriel. I found this intriguing since the Coptic Church (and this is not opposed to Patristic writings) traditionally considers the appearance of the angel to actually be one of Christ’s appearances in the Old Testament, which comports with an interpretation based on Nebuchadnezzar’s attestation of what he saw: “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?… I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Daniel 3:24-25). This belief is so prevalent in the Coptic mindset that icons often depict Christ as the angel. See the Coptic and Ethiopian icons below:

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SHOES OUTSIDE, NOT JUST “THE ALTAR,” BUT THE ENTIRE CHURCH

I love that in the Ethiopian Church, shoes are kept outside the entire church. Of course we all know that taking off shoes while in a holy place recalls what God told Moses when He appeared in the burning bush, requiring that Moses take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground. Is not the entire church, from where the congregants stand to the sanctuary itself, holy? Even if we Copts believe so, how come we don’t take off our shoes? I think it’s a beautiful tradition.


 

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PRAYER STAFF

Shortly after I walked into the church, I was handed one of these sticks. This does not happen in the Coptic Church, so I had no clue what this was for or what I should do with it. I kept glancing at others and noticed they were holding it up or having it lean on their bodies. In thinking what this was for, my first thought was to recall a very similar-looking staff I’ve seen before, but always only in the hands of bishops:

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The one held by bishops has two snake heads on the top. You might be thinking, “that sounds satanic,” but it is actually derived from a reference to the story in the Old Testament when the Israelites who were with Moses were being bitten by snakes and dying, and so the Lord commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent staff, and whenever anyone who was bitten would look upon it, they would be saved and not die. In the New Testament Scripture recalls to us that story and likens the staff to the cross of Christ, upon which if we look we are saved (you can read more about this here).

Upon inquiring, the priest quickly discarded my assumption and indicated this staff is actually meant to remind each congregant of the beatings that Christ took as He approached the moment of His crucifixion. Didn’t expect that answer.

 


 

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MY TALK—WHILE DRESSED IN LITURGICAL VESTMENTS

At the end of the liturgy, a sermon was given. The traditional time for a sermon, as far as I can surmise from my readings, is at the end of the “Liturgy of the Catechumens,” after the day’s readings from Scripture have concluded (and so it is also known as the “Liturgy of the Word”); traditionally this was the time that catechumens (newcomers to the faith awaiting baptism) were instructed in the faith. But on this Sunday, I was asked to give a talk after the communion had been distributed and the liturgy proper had ended. But before that, the priest said to me that the people would expect to see me in what appeared to be deacon vestments while I was giving the, I guess, sermon. Never done this before! It was pretty fun, and I’m glad I had room to extend my arms out and flail them around as that is the way I like to speak.

Notice by the way that the two Ethiopians in this photo are priests, and neither seem to have a beard in any way similar to what we are used to in the Coptic Church or elsewhere in the Eastern Orthodox world.

 


 

Food

WHAT I LEARNED OVER AMAZING ETHIOPIAN FOOD—THE LACK OF PROGRESS INCORPORATING ENGLISH INTO THE ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH

After the liturgy and my talk were over, I was invited to sit with the priests and deacons, along with some other fascinating gentlemen, and I was offered authentic Ethiopian food. All I could think was: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE? They placed all the food on my plate and it was truly one of the best meals I’ve ever had, especially during the fast, and it was all vegan in accordance with fasting rites. Amazing! (If you’re curious, the red stuff is basically tomato sauce with lentils, the white stuff is tofu and oh my goodness so yummy and spicy, and the yellow stuff was cauliflower with amazing taste and spices).

Then there was the coffee. I was told by one of the priests that coffee really originated in Ethiopia and its name even is derived from the Ethiopian word for it. I was thinking, maybe this is like how in My Big Fat Greek Wedding the ultra-nationalistic Greek father in the family would draw out in any way he could how every word in the English language as having been derived from Greek? And how we Egyptians tend to say a lot of things today are derived from our ancient heritage that maybe aren’t? But I felt like maybe this was truly the case, and so I just took his word for it. He was quite convincing. I rarely drink coffee, and especially not without sugar and cream. But this coffee, oh my goodness, was so amazingly smooth and plentifully tasty, with what appeared to be no sugar or any other additions. I’m craving more as I write this… yummy.

But with the food came conversation, and the sad realization that this particular parish is one of the (if not THE) only parish in the entire Ethiopian Orthodox Church that is trying to incorporate English into its service on a regular basis. Apparently it is becoming a real problem for many of the Ethiopian youth in the land of immigration who do not feel connected to their church due to language barriers, where after high school they often just drift away unlikely to return to practicing their faith diligently. See, the reason I was asked to give a sermon in English in the first place was in order to promote the use the English language as a part of the overall Sunday service, and apparently it is extremely rare for there to be an Ethiopian church with English sermons (let alone priests who are very well-versed in English it seems).

When I walked into the church my friend and I asked for a book in English to help us follow along. They couldn’t find it, because apparently they only have two copies. The entire liturgy was basically in Amharic (and maybe some Ge’ez?—not sure), with not a single word in English.

Even though the Ethiopian Orthodox has been around in America for the same time as the Coptic Church (about 50-60 years), and while they far exceed the numbers of Copts (for example, in Atlanta there are an estimated 20,000 Ethiopian Orthodox versus maybe 2-3,000 Copts, and in D.C. Ethiopians have about half a million Orthodox members which is a number Copts cannot come even close to there), yet the Coptic Church has dramatically outpaced the Ethiopian Church in its progress incorporating the language of the land in its services (liturgical and otherwise).

Coptic progress generally was as follows:

  • Step 1—In America, Copts began with liturgical books that incorporated English, although the Liturgy was predominantly in Arabic. Such books (if anyone remembers) used to have the Arabic written out phonetically in English too—that’s how I learned a lot of my Arabic responses actually).
  • Then they moved to incorporating more English. We had bishops such as His Grace Bishop Youssef institute a rule to make English the predominant language used on Sundays in the Coptic Diocese of the Southern U.S.A. Moreover English sermons, theological and spiritual books in English, entire youth conventions in English, and other manners of catering to those who speak English were prominent features of the Coptic Church. I recall many occasions where His Holiness the late Pope Shenouda III would give sermons in English when visiting America, not to mention the countless books he wrote that were translated (albeit poorly) in English (and which today are being retranslated in part). His Grace Bishop Youssef has been delivering amazing sermons in English for as long as I’ve known him. One Ethiopian congregant I met, a young woman, remembers visiting the Coptic Church nearby and hearing H.G. Bishop Youssef give a sermon in English, which was such a unique and refreshing thing to experience, and until this day she remembers the entire sermon. For Copts, English sermons are the expected norm, not an exceptional abnormality.
  • For the improvement of worship service and catering to English, we had a great effort by a church in New Jersey to create easily navigable PowerPoint-type presentations to be displayed on large screens for the congregants. Now we have an official mobile application (available on Apple and Android devices) called Coptic Reader that presents Coptic, Arabic, and English texts for all to use, and is the official (I’m pretty sure, or at least it is commonly thought of in that way) text for the Southern Diocese.
  • Most recently many “mission churches” began to pop up, with a goal to serve English-speakers who feel more comfortable with American culture, and bring others into the fold. A much more formal, concerted effort in the Southern Diocese has started, whereby H.G. Bishop Youssef is creating a new arm of the Coptic Church called the American Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (you can read my thoughts on that here) (which actually faced much controversy by some hardline Copts in Egypt who feared what in my opinion they did not understand; nonetheless, progress is continuing).

Today, in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, they are at step 1—liturgical books that have English translations, and Amharic written out phonetically in English. That’s it. So the next time a Coptic person complains about language, instead of looking at the half-empty glass, look at how full it is. I pray for my Ethiopian Orthodox brothers, that they will be able to make the progress needed to serve their congregants and newcomers for the glory of God.

At the end of my visit, I truly gained more than I gave them, and look forward to remaining in contact with the parish as they venture into what is for them uncharted territory, assimilating their services to the culture around them. May God give them wisdom and strength and support to achieve what is best for His glory. Thank you for inviting me and for the great blessing I received.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “My Intriguing Visit to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church—A First-Time Coptic Visitor’s Perspective

  1. thank you for this beautiful piece about my church. The issue in adapting the engish language has a lot to do with the skill of the priests/deacons/etc. Most priests are immigrants from Ethiopia and Ethiopia doesn’t use English or any other foreign language except in academics. So pretty much all the people that can give sermon has a strong limitation when it comes to the English language. By the way, the same is true for the congregants. Most are immigrants right out of Ethiopia. They also need time to master the Engish language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much. That makes sense that progress in English language accessibility is limited by the fact that most congregants do not need it, but now the need is starting to emerge as being urgent. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the blessing.

      Like

  2. Not only your experience, your report of it is very intriguing. Very keen observation. You have observed a great deal in one single visit. You didn’t just observe, you have made it more evident by referring and relating each to its Biblical and traditional reasoning behind. We need more people like you. We need more people who can clearly present the case for our ancient traditions and worship to the younger and newer generation.

    Like

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