The Morning When Angels Sang for St Mary in Ethiopia
“Tales from aeons past seep from every corner of Axum. More than 2000 years ago, the former capital of the Axumite kingdom exerted its military, trade and cultural powers for more than a millennium. Legend states that the king who bore Frankincense (Gaspar) to Jesus after his birth hailed from Axum. The famed Queen of Sheba is also believed to have come from this ancient city. However, Axum’s most significant claim is its possession of the famous Ark of the Covenant that housed the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
However, the most significant experience was my participation at St Mary’s Day (St Mariam, according to the Ethiopians) celebrations. She is the most revered Christian figure behind Jesus in Ethiopia, and any day dedicated to her is an important and highly anticipated affair. The worship involved midnight to midday prayer session that included a procession of a replica Ark of the Covenant before dawn.
Awakening before 4 am, I rubbed my heavy eyes, and donning a light white shawl purchased in the market the previous day, I journeyed along benighted streets to arrive at the St Mary’s of Zion church thronging with similarly clad parishioners. Loudspeakers pronounced prayers of the proceedings to those assembled, and it gave a sense of gravitas to this scene on a chilly morn. People unable to enter the crowded church would instead pray against its walls or in the gardened enclosure. In the darkness, I weaved my way through the crowd and headed to the site of the Ark, where a few dozen male worshippers attended to rituals involving praying and chanting.
With dawn still, an hour away, a sudden flurry of activity heralded the emergence of the replica Ark draped in an embroidered maroon cloth that was carried aloft by a priest. With protective white parasols escorting him, they proceeded to a large area where many hundreds of mostly female parishioners were waiting in a large circle. Lit by the glow of amber street lights and candles, prayers were offered and received in what seemed an intricate and detailed ceremony. I positioned myself on a concrete platform underneath an enormous tree and received a few curious looks from the locals for I was the only foreigner in attendance.
After approximately 30 minutes, the ceremony concluded, and the procession through the streets of Axum commenced. The white-clad figures glided into the evening as they followed a cluster of parasols under which sat the replica Ark. Once all had departed, silence and stillness now hung above the previously busy scene, thus enabling a period of quiet reflection and contemplation before I hurried to join the procession. Once amongst their midst, I could espy some parishioners peeling off into their homes while far more joined the faithful on this journey, so the crowd grew in size the further we progressed until the procession numbered more than a thousand. Some sections of streets were devoid of lighting, and at these times the only illumination was the flickering of candles that shone their lambent light on the flowing white robes and diaphanous scarves.
The most enduring and endearing memory was the singing that embraced and nurtured me. It was as if a chorus of angels had descended to earth and graced mortals with their divine presence. The voices were so beautiful, so gentle, and so reverential that my eyes welled with tears. The volume would at times subside to nearly a whisper, before rising to a level of exuberant worship. It was as if some higher being had touched the congregation with love as universal as the distant stars that faintly sparkled through the clouds far above our heads.
The procession arrived again at its starting point and prayers continued until the fuscous sky had been subsumed by the feeble light of dawn. Throughout the morning, I was unable to understand the words being uttered and the practices being performed, but this was an experience that transcended language, culture and faith. I came to Axum seeking the Ark of the Covenant, but departed with a far greater prize.”
Some of my blogs about Ethiopia: