A View from the Altar
By: Solomon Kibriye
I’m not sure where I should begin. Like most deacons living in the United States, I work outside of the church to make a living. I am a “weekend deacon” so to speak. I studied something completely unrelated in college, and I have a full time job in another field. Being a deacon, however, is an extremely important factor in my life, so I will try and share how I got into this, and what it means to me today.
As most readers of this article will know, the mid to late seventies in Ethiopia were a time of tumult and change, and the church was not exempted from this. The hierarchy of the church was shaken up by the revolution, and clergy at every level were deeply affected. The events of this time were what propelled me into the service that I continue today.
As a very young boy, I would be roused in the wee hours of the night every Sunday (and many Saturdays as well) by my father to accompany him to church. I did not particularly enjoy being made to get up, but I would drag myself out of bed and off to church I would go.
My father, as long as I can remember, has been an active and devoted member of the congregation at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Although there were several churches closer to our home, my father only attended Mass at Kidist Sellassie and nowhere else. Everyone knew him there, and saved his seat for him every week. Although I hated waking up early, once I arrived at church, the reluctance would disappear into the awe I felt for the magnificence of the Cathedral and the beauty of the services. I loved the incense and the beautiful singing of the Liturgy; the mystery of the rituals and the glitter of the robes drew me into a world that my great grandparents and their great grandparents would easily recognize. I had the strong feeling of belonging to something big and protective when I was with all those people who packed the Cathedral every weekend to pray to God and celebrate the sacraments.
When I started first grade, I attended the Good Shepherd School at Mkanissa. In those days, it was considered to be just outside Addis, and it was run by American Missionaries. Amharic was not taught at this school, so consequently, my command of my native language left a great deal to be desired. I could speak it, but reading and writing it was a nightmare by the time I was in the fourth grade.
My parents, although pleased with my comfort of the English language, were concerned about my Amharic, and so they hired a deacon, Zelalem, from Holy Trinity to come on weekends and teach my brother and I the basics of reading, writing, prayers and the bible. These weekly sessions moved eventually from our home to the Cathedral, where a gentle old monk, Abba Tsegaye also taught us to sing the Liturgy. Abba Tsegaye would later be made Bishop of Illubabur with the name Abune Tadios. (He subsequently became Archbishop of Eritrea, and died in the late nineteen eighties).
His goodness and gentleness left a deep impression on me. There were times when I resented being taken to the Cathedral every Saturday to study while my friends were playing tennis at the Tennis Club, or swimming at the Hilton. I would gripe that I didn’t understand why I had to spend Saturday and Sunday at church.
A person of great importance who professed the atheism that was politically correct in the late seventies asked my father once why he subjected his children to this “superstition” when they should be studying physics or biology instead of Qiddase.
My father replied, “The reason is because I want them to be good Ethiopians first. People like you, sir, are ‘ba’ed’ (foreigners) in their own country.” Lucky for us, this powerful man either chose to ignore the remark, or perhaps didn’t really care what my father thought.
But it made an impression on me. The priests and deacons at Holy Trinity did more than just teach us Qiddase and hymns. They told us about the stories of the saints, and importance of various shrines and monasteries in Ethiopia. They taught us about the great Emperors and Empresses and all that they had done. We would walk around the graveyard at the Cathedral, where only those who had fought the fascist Italian invaders could be buried, and we read their life stories form their monuments.
We saw the monuments to those who were massacred by the Italians on Yekatit 12, when virtually the entire educated class in Addis Ababa (and many more other simple citizens as well) was wiped out because of an assassination attempt against Marshal Graziani, the Italian Viceroy.
We peered through grated openings to try to see their coffins in the dark chamber under the monuments.
In that era of communism, we also learned about the last Emperor, Haile Sellassie, by going down into the crypt beneath the Cathedral, to see where his wife and children were buried, and where many gifts the Imperial family had given the cathedral were kept. We saw glittering tiaras that belonged to Empress Menen, and robes that had belonged to the Emperor. There was even a little red glass flask enmeshed in gold and decorated with jewels that had been used by Empress Zewditu at her coronation in 1917.
We saw portraits of Emperors, Empresses, Princes, Princesses, Generals and Ministers, and learned of their histories. I think that this is what triggered my obsession with history, something that continues to consume me to this very day.
Between Abba Tsegaye and Zelalem, as well as various other deacons and priest at Holy Trinity, my brother and I were soon singing the mass at the top of our voices at Sunday services. We were joined by my best friend, Lewy, and soon other boys our age were studying with us.
Little did we know that we were all part of a plot devised and executed by our parents. At the time of the ’74 revolution, the long time dean of the Cathedral had been imprisoned for his close ties to the Imperial government. He was replaced in quick succession by several clerics, none of whom stayed at the Cathedral for very long. The reason these administrators changed so often was in step with the times: the deacons at the Cathedral would refuse to participate in the mass unless so and so was removed from the administration.
They ‘went on strike’ every time a new administrator was appointed, and the congregation became furious at these constant strikes. As salaried employees, these deacons were exercising hardball labor tactics. To the majority of the congregation, it was an affront to their faith, so they took matters into their own hands.
They had begun to have us young boys trained to perform the role of the deacons. Finally, in 1977, my father took my brother and I to the Bete Kihnet (the Patriarchal Palace) and we stood before His Holiness Abune Tekle Haimanot, Patriarch of Ethiopia, as he ordained us deacons of the Holy Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Soon, my friend Lewy was also ordained, and then several other boys.
After that, Sundays at our church were very different. We new deacons no longer stood in the Kidist next to our fathers. Now, we were in the Meqdess, near the altar with the other deacons and the priests.
Our first duty was to stand as attendants for the presiding Bishops when they visited the Cathedral. All the Bishops who visited showed great favor to the little boys who now were increasingly filling the Meqdess. Soon we were being dressed in the heavy gold encrusted vestments to join in the processions at great holidays, or to take the gospels out to be kissed by the congregants. We also began to assist in the actual mass itself. We were not being paid for our services, therefore, we did not strike. The threats of deacon strikes that had marked the previous years dried up and disappeared forever. The number of young deacons increased steadily. It was, for all of us, a very memorable time.
Today, my job as a deacon is to assist in the performance of the Holy Mass, and to lead the congregation in the singing of the Liturgy. The Ethiopian Church has 14 Qidasses. Certain ones are sung on certain days, and the deacon must keep track of the differences between them. A mistake by a deacon in singing the mass will attract looks of reprimands from all quarters. Many important figures in Ethiopian history were deacons, including most of our Emperors. Several became priests as well. It is an immense history that we deacons must live up to.
Ethiopian priests and deacons, like those in the other Orthodox Churches can marry and have children. Those who do not, become monks. Only monks can become bishops. Many Ethiopians refer to their church as “Coptic” or “Eastern” Orthodox. These are both erroneous. The word “Coptic” comes from the Arabic work Gupt, which translates to Egypt. The word “Coptic” refers, therefore, to the Christian Church in Egypt, and to the language that the Christians of Egypt speak. We are not Copts, nor do we speak Coptic. The correct term is Ethiopian Orthodox.
The Patriarch of the Coptic Church formerly used to appoint the Archbishop of Ethiopia from among the Coptic monks of Egypt. This ended with the agreement of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the 1950s when the first Ethiopian Patriarch, Abune Baslios, was enthroned. Even though we are not “Coptic”, we share the same faith and doctrine with the Copts. Unlike the Copts, however, there are doctrinal differences with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and so the Ethiopian Church cannot be called an “Eastern Orthodox” church.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches, including the Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Russians, Bulgarians etc along with the Roman Catholic Churches, and most of the Protestant Churches that broke away from the Catholics, all accept the Council of Chalcedon which took place in the 4th Century. This council of the early church declared that Christ had two natures, one Divine nature, and one Human nature. These natures were separate and distinct. He, therefore, did some things as a Man and others as God the Son. When this decision was made, five churches rejected it and refused to accept the legitimacy of the council as a result. The five churches were the Orthodox Churches of Egypt (Copts), Armenia, Malabar (India), Syria (Jacobite) and Ethiopia.
These churches maintained that Jesus Christ had only one nature. This nature was a complete unity of the Divine and Human (Tewahido), which was inseparable and absolute. They argued that everything he did, he did as both Man and God and that there was no interruption in the unity of his nature.
This is what separates the Ethiopian Church from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. The five churches that reject Chalcedon are referred to as the Oriental Orthodox. Many Ethiopians seem not to know this. Our rituals are very close to those of the Eastern Orthodox, and we share much of the beliefs and practices of the Catholics as well. However, we are Oriental Orthodox, not Eastern Orthodox.
The Ethiopian Church is rich in history, music, poetry and philosophy, yet many of us remain ignorant of much of it. I, myself, a deacon of the church, am sadly deficient in my knowledge of these things.
Many who do not understand the immense wealth she bears have labeled the church backward and ignorant. She has preserved a unique system of musical notation (with a scale of five notes), which is distinct from the European musical notation system. The monasteries were the Universities of Ethiopia, where people went to learn Qine, Digwa, Qidasse, AquaQam etc. The history and culture of the country was safeguarded by the monks who wrote down the events and practices of their times by hand in hundreds of parchment volumes that still exist today.
In 1981, my life changed when my brother and I came to the U.S. There was no Ethiopian Church in southern New Jersey where I lived for the next four years. My aunt would occasionally take us to a Coptic Church, but although our faiths are close, the languages are very different. It was nice, but not the same. In 1985, I moved to New York City, and began to attend services at Medhane Alem (the Church of the Savior of the World). I have served there ever since.
Being a deacon has been an important part of my life, especially living in America, and a city like New York. It has kept me centered in a chaotic and often confusing world. A strong sense of family has developed among the congregation and clergy at Medhane Alem, and when I am unable to attend services, my whole week feels incomplete. Being a deacon not only strengthened my sense of culture and history, but it has planted in me a deep and thriving faith in God. I feel as if I have been protected and blessed in a million ways, and this service is the very least that I can do to give back and share what I have been given. For me, the church is a rock that anchors one to faith in God and the goodness that emanates from him. Being a deacon helps me share that comfort with so many Ethiopians of all ages and backgrounds who come to take part in it.
I have become a New Yorker through and through, and I love the city and it’s colorful ways. Monday through Saturday I am indistinguishable from the hordes of people pushing and shoving their way onto the subways and rushing through life in Gotham. I’m a typical New Yorker and a million things to do and never enough time to do it. I’ve been told that people who live in New York never walk or relax, we just run and stress out.
Perhaps that’s all true. However, every Sunday, for a little while, I sing the mass, just as that nervous, skinny, nine-year-old wearing robes that were much too big did at Holy Trinity Cathedral so many years ago. For me, there is no greater peace.