It was Sunday, September 27. Many people were mingling about when I arrived at the St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church near Dufferin and Lawrence. Many children were snacking and waiting in the church hall for the regular service nearby to end. It was obviously a time for reunions. People greeted each other with cheerful hugs. The women were mainly dressed in beautiful white gauze shawls and dresses, some trimmed with gold. The men wore shirts and jeans, or business suits. A few wore traditional whites decorated with stunning embroidery.
A couple of stalls sold clothes, religious pictures, crosses, and food. The occasion was the Celebration of the Founding of the True Cross. It is know as Meskel.
I found a place to stand outdoors and waited near the pyramid of sticks that would soon be a bon fire. It was covered with a huge red, yellow and green banner, the same colours as the Ethiopian flag. People standing nearby explained that the Meskel has been practised since the fourth century. It was Queen Helena (Saint Helena) in Jerusalem who discerned that a piece of wood was that of the cross on which Jesus Christ died. Worshippers took it from Egypt to Ethiopia.
A procession of church leaders including the Archbishop arrived. They were all dressed in rich silks and brocades. They sang, prayed, chanted and filled the square with incense. Deacons drummed and danced. They all circled the pyramid slowly at first. The drummers danced faster and faster.
One priest carried a Bible open to one of St. Paul’s Epistles.
Then some men took off the banner and lit the branches. The pyramid exploded as the flames leaped towards the sky. The choir sang and clapped. Parishioners took a lot of pictures. Me too.
The heat was getting to me. I retreated to a nearby hill.
The next day, I was surprised to hear about a Finnish friend who wrote on Facebook that she had just celebrated the Meskel in Ethiopia by dancing around a fire. I thought at first it was an amazing co-incidence! But then I mused on it some more. Of course the same church would perform the same ceremony everywhere in the world. But because she was a friend, also an outsider, I felt I was sharing the same sense of awe with her even though we were on different continents. It was indeed a moving experience, full of historical rituals and meaning. I hope more “outsiders” will see it next year.
In the meantime, here’s a short video. http://youtu.be/wryRclgG48g