Celebration of the Feast of the Cross

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Celebration of the Feast of the Cross

Mahibere Kidusan members Celebrating Meskel in “Meskel Square”

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church is the treasure of the grace of God and riches of apostolic Traditions. The church is the kingdom of God on the earth and serves as a ladder to let believers ascend to the heaven for eternal life. The celebrations of holy festivals are spiritual practices Christians partake in to become ready for the Kingdom of God. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church celebrates feasts not only to commemorate their historical events, but to participate in the rituals as the body of Christ to be blessed by the salvation of God revealed on the Cross. The purpose of this short article is to brief readers about the historical background of the feast of the Cross, the significance of the mystical celebration of the event and the power of the Cross in our spiritual life.

Celebration of the Feast of the Holy Cross

Our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be praise and glory, saved the world by presenting His own pure body a sacrifice on the mystical temple (the Holy Cross) for the salvation and ransom of all humanity. He made us free from every curse reigned over us, being made a curse for human being as Saint Paul puts: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree (Gal. 3: 13). The Cross of Christ is hope, life, symbol and seal of salvation for those who believe in the Crucified God. On the contrary, it was the symbol of shame and curse for Jews. Therefore, when the Jews saw the miracle the Holy Cross did, in healing sick, blind, deaf, paralytic and so forth, they became nervous and wanted to conceal these wonders. Finally, they decided to bury the Cross by taking it away from Golgotha. Then, they decreed and ordered people to cast dirty things on the Life-giving Wood of the Cross for more than two hundred years.   

The Holy Cross was left buried till the Holy Spirit inspired the blessed Queen Eleni (Helena) to search for it. The queen was a very devout Christian and brought up her son, Constantine, whose father was a gentile King. Constantine was brought up being coached under his father’s supervision, moving from place to place with the king. Upon the death of his father, Constantine took over the throne and the scepter of his father. The devout lady, Eleni (Helena), wanted to search for the glorious and Life-giving Wood of the Cross and told her son that she would go to Jerusalem. This took place twenty years after the enthronement of Constantine. When the king heard this news from his mother, he became very happy and sent her to the holy land with lots of money and soldiers.  

Church Scholars on “Meskel Square”

When the queen arrived in Jerusalem, she visited the holy places, worshiped God and was blessed. Then, she started to search for the Cross. But no one was there to inform her whereabouts of the cross. Finally, she was informed by someone that there was an elderly man, named Kirakos, who could tell her where there cross had been buried. The elderly man was not willing to inform her about the Cross. The Church Tradition tells us that the queen used her own wisdom to oblige the man to tell her about the buried secrete. She gave him food full of salt and prevented him to drink water unless he tells her where the cross had been concealed. Then, he told her that the Cross had been buried under one of three big hills out there. Thus, the old man told her to burn a pile of wood or Demera by adding to it very fragrant incense called Sandrose. The queen did what the old man told her. The smoke of the burning wood and the incense rose to heaven and miraculously bowed down pointing towards the hill where the Life-giving Cross had been buried. Being led by the miracle she observed from the smoke, the queen ordered the people to start digging the mountain on September 26 (Meskerem 16). Thus, our apostolic Tewahido Church celebrates this holy feast to commemorate this mystical event which took place on this date.  

Empress Eleni (Helena) discovered the Holy Cross of our Lord on Megabit 10 (March 19) after much toil. When she found the Cross, three crosses appeared (Our Lord’s Cross and the thieves’ crosses crucified with Him) and the queen could not identify the True Cross. Then she ordered to bring a dead body and put on the crosses one after the other. The two crosses did not reveal any sign. However, when the body was put on the Life-giving Wood of the Cross, it immediately restored to life. Then the queen became very happy and sang with the people around her. That is why we sing today during the celebration of the feast of the Cross. The queen became very happy and built lots of churches in the holy land and consecrated them on September 27 (Meskerem 17) inviting popes from the dioceses of Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Ephesus.

We have to make clear two things about the celebration of the feast of the Cross on September 27 (Meskerem 17). We celebrate the feast of the Cross on September 26 to commemorate the Demera of the queen as mentioned before. On this date the smoke proceeded from the Demera and indicated where the Cross had been buried and the queen ordered people to start digging the hill right away. We again celebrate the feast on September 27 to commemorate the appearance of the Cross on March 19 (Megabit 10). The date the True Cross appeared (March 19) falls in the Great Lent and it is not suitable to celebrate such a significant holiday with great observance during the fasting days. Thus, our early church fathers decided to celebrate the feast of discovering the True Cross on September 27 following Demera, coupled with the consecration of the churches the queen built in Jerusalem.

The Festival of the Cross Today

Sunday school student Celebrating Meskel in “Meskel Square”

In Ethiopia the feast of the cross is one of the colorfully celebrated holidays. The fact that the celebration of the feast comes near the beginning of the year gives it especial ritual grace. In our country during this season, the valleys and the hills are decorated with diversified and colorful flowers which let our spirits soar up in spiritual contemplation and admiration of the beauty of the creation of God. The splendor of this nature at the beginning of the year mystically symbolizes the renewal of mankind through the grace of salvation given to us through the redemptive work consummated on the Cross. That is why we hold the cross and colorfully celebrate the feast, commemorating the love of God revealed through His sufferings. Ethiopians celebrate this festival communally, coming together from different nations, cultural backgrounds and linguistic diversities with one accord and love. This depicts the fact that our church has been established on a unified foundation laid by the work of Christ on His Cross (Eph. 2: 16). 

We celebrate this holiday lighting or burning chibo, our traditional torch, for different reasons. Firstly, we burn chibo to commemorate the appearance of the Wood of the Life-giving Cross indicated by the smoke proceeded from the burning Demera of Queen Eleni. Secondly, when the Queen Eleni saw the true Cross of our Lord of Glory, light proceeded from it. So we enjoy and contemplate this spiritual miracle by burning chibo. Thirdly, Ethiopians give thanks to God Who transfers them from the darkness of the Kiremt (Summer) to the bright Metsew (Autumn) season in September. This holiday is colorfully celebrated in southern part of the country and has deep spiritual meditations. This is reminiscent of the words of our Lord: “pray you that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day” (Mat. 24: 20). But the whole symbol and mystery we try to depict through Demera or chibo is to give thanks to God that we were transferred from the darkness of ignorance to spiritual light or knowledge, from reciting the shadow or letters to the body or spirit of salvation, from the darkness of Hell to Paradise and from the shadow of death to brightness of eternal life through the work accomplished on the Cross. That is why we sing with Saint Yared “The Cross is light for the whole world and foundation for the Church”.

When we see the Wood of the Cross, we spiritually ascend to the Hill of Golgotha with our Saver where He was crucified. This reality leads us to deep contemplation of the work God did on the Cross to redeem us. The crucified God on the Cross indicates four directions. His head and feet indicate the heaven and the earth. That is He reconciled those in the heaven and on the earth with His precious blood gushed on the Cross. Another, the head and the feet of our Lord on the Cross also show that the Cross is the ladder of our salvation through which we ascend to heaven for eternal life.  Similarly, His two hands indicate the right and the left corner of the world. The two hands reveal that He reconciled the Israelites and the gentiles through the work of His Cross (Eph 2: 16). Moreover, whenever we see the wood of the cross, we always mystically feel that we are in the bosom of our Redeemer like chicken of a hen which get shield under their mother’s feather (John 12: 32). That is why deacons hold the cross taller than their heads so that everybody sees and contemplates the mystery of this salvation. In the same manner, we put the cross on the top of the gates of the compounds and the domes of churches. Our believers always look up to these crosses during their prayer to contemplate the whole mysteries of the cross which transcend our knowledge and expressions through words. Thus, for us the Cross is our spiritual instructor which preaches us the love of God and the symbol and the seal of our salvation.  

Image result for celebrating meskel

Making the Sign of the Cross

When we make the sign of the cross, we confess our belief in the Holy Trinity and express that our salvation was consummated through the Mystery of Incarnation. The followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church make the sign of the cross when they start and complete prayer, start and complete eating food, rebuke evil spirits and perform other spiritual practices. When the believers do these all, they say “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen”. By doing so, they confess their belief in the Holy Trinity. They join their three fingers together and make the sign of the cross to show that they believe in One God. When we make the sign of the cross, we say in the Name of the father (while touching our forehead) and of the Son (while touching our chest) and of the Holy Spirit (while touching first our left shoulder and then our right shoulder). Here, besides confessing our belief in the Holy Trinity, we also express that we were saved and restored to our original state by the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Logos. We always remember that God descended from the heaven to the earth and transferred humanity from left to right, from darkness to light, from Hell to Paradise and from death to eternal life.

When we make the sign of the cross, we also confess that we belong to Christ Who saved us being crucified and express that we partake in his sufferings. We follow the order of our Lord: “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:38) and “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt.16: 24; Mark.8: 34). The Church followed her Lord right from his birth in the person of Salome, Joseph and Virgin Mary during his persecution (Mat. 2:13). When he was led to Golgotha, the Church carried His Cross in the person of Simon the Cyrene (Mat. 27:32) and accompanied her Lord up to Bethany  when He ascended (Luke 24: 50). The church physically holds the Cross of her Lord teaching the mystery of our salvation accomplished on the Cross and intellectually contemplates the depth of His love revealed through His suffering on the Life-giving Wood.

The mysteries of the Cross are evident in our daily life and are vividly depicted in spiritual and ritual practices. The culture of Ethiopian Christians is predominantly religious. Our cloth, jewelry and buildings reveal the sign of the cross.  That is, the sign of the cross is part of our life. Whenever we go to church and pray at our homes, we clothe in sign of the cross. People also engrave the sign of the cross on their foreheads and on different parts of their body to express their love for the crucified God. Furthermore, some believe that they have to confess their belief making tattoos of the cross on their bodies, even when it may cost them their precious lives because they could be easily targeted.

 The Adoration of the Cross in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church venerates the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ with due attention and high spiritual observance. This is because the church is a treasure of apostolic Traditions and full of riches of the grace of salivation of our Saver. As the bride of Christ, the Church lives sacramental life derived from the mystery of salvation performed on the Cross.

The bride of Christ believes that there is no salvation outside the church and no power without the Holy Cross. She is content with the words of Saint Paul: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor.1: 18). Our holy Church always confesses that she has been betrothed to her Bridegroom (Christ) with the precious dowry (His blood) given to her on the Cross. The Church sings and meditates this mystery with Saint Paul: “But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal.6: 14). Our priests use the cross when they exorcise devils and rebuke evil spirits because they believe that the Cross is their power. The evil spirits also tremble when a cross is put on the forehead of an individual suffering from the spirits.

The church knows and preaches the wonders God gave to his holy apostles. For example, we read a verse from Acts of the Apostles that “Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them” (Act. 5: 15). Following this practice, the Holy Bible tells us that “There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed everyone (Act. 5: 16). The same was true with the wonder doing cloth of Apostle Paul. We read: “And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul. So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them (Act.19:11-12). Thus, if the shadow and cloth of the saintly apostles could do these miracles, how much does the Life-giving Wood of the Cross of our Lord do more miracles? It is this belief that encourages our apostolic church employ the Cross as her power in every walks of her life.

The Church uses the cross in all holy sacraments for consecration and blessing. For instance, the spiritual rebirth (baptism) cannot be performed without using the cross. The baptismal font is blessed with the holy cross to convert the water to the Life-giving Water gushed from the side of Christ on His Cross. The clergymen are also consecrated with the cross when they are selected for some spiritual office. The vestment or robe they wear is also blessed with the cross when they serve in liturgy. Generally speaking, no church sacrament is blessed and become effective without being sanctified with the cross. That is why we say that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church daily practices the sacrament entrusted to her through the graceful redemptive work of Christ. The church also teaches her followers to live sacramental life to prepare for the eternal life to come. The source of all the mysteries in the New Testament is the glorious Cross of our Lord and Saver Jesus Christ.

To sum up, our ancient and apostolic church observes or solemnizes the festival of the Cross commemorating its historical background and holds it as her power and seal of salvation. The Historical commemoration of the Cross reveals that the Holy Cross continues as the center of our spiritual contemplation to the end of the ages. The spiritual celebration of the feast, on the other hand, shows that we always cling to the Cross because it is the source of our life. The Cross is the symbol and seal of our salvation and the “armour of God that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).

Glory be to God Who is glorified in His Life-giving Cross. Amen.

Mahibere Kidusan Education and Apostolic Mission Coordination

Email Adress : –apostolic.mission@eotcmk.org