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Ethiopians celebrate Epiphany with replicas of the Ark of the Covenant


Alvaro Villanueva | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 01/18/20

Colorful celebration is a two-day affair.

The Ethiopian celebration of the Baptism of Jesus Christ has elements recognizing the Old Testament as well as the New.

While Roman Catholics celebrated the Baptism last Sunday, Ethiopian Orthodox, who observed Christmas on January 6, begin their celebration of the Baptism on the evening of January 18.

Recently, UNESCO, the United Nations’ office for culture, recognized Ethiopian Epiphany by placing it on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“Ethiopian Epiphany is a colorful festival celebrated all over Ethiopia to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan,” UNESCO said. “The commemoration starts on the eve of the main festival on 18 January. The eve is known as Ketera, which means blocking the flow of water for the blessing of the celebrants. On the eve of Ketera, people escort their parish church tabot (replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) to Timkete-Bahir (a pool, river or artificial reservoir), transported by a priest of the parish and accompanied by a great ceremony.”

The faithful then spend the night in prayer, including a Eucharistic Liturgy.

Hundreds of thousands participate in the actual festival on the following day, UNESCO said: “The celebration starts early in the morning with pre-sunrise rituals. These are followed by the sprinkling of the blessed water on the congregation, as well as other ceremonies. At around 10 a.m., each tabot begins its procession back to its respective church, involving an even more colorful ceremony with various traditional and religious songs. The viability of the element is ensured through its continued practice, with Orthodox clergies playing a pivotal role: they sing the praises dedicated to the rituals and hymns, carry the Ark, and preach relevant texts.”

Ethiopian Orthodoxy is the predominant faith in the country. Thomas M. Landy, founder of Catholics & Cultures and a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, writes that Ethiopia’s roots are intertwined with the ancient Israelites and the Hebrew Bible. It’s no surprise than that the Ark of the Covenant is so revered in the liturgies of the Ethiopian Church.

“The 14th-century national epic Kebra Nagast, The Glory of the Kings, even claims that the Ethiopian nation was founded by Etiopik, a great grandson of Noah, and that Menelik I, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought Jewish nobles and the Ark of the Covenant back from Israel,” Landy writes. “Amharic Ethiopians have thus understood themselves genealogically as heirs to the King Solomon and these nobles. They believe that the church of St. Mary in Axum is home to the authentic biblical Ark of the Covenant. … Every Orthodox Church contains a copy of the tabot, the Ark of the Covenant, which is venerated and kept behind a veil.”

This 10-minute video, which tells us that the celebration dates to the 4th century, gives a good feeling for what it’s like to be at Ethiopian Epiphany:

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