Ethiopian Orthodox: A baptism, an Ark and Timkat

Photo in public domainFRIDAY, JANUARY 20: Two weeks after the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, a holiday of vibrant velvets, sequins, satins, and supreme joy sweeps through the country in a three-day festival known as Timkat. The Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany recalls the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, with a Divine Liturgy taking place at 2 a.m. near a natural pool of water. (Wikipedia has details.) Following the Divine Liturgy, the pool of water is blessed and holy water is sprinkled upon those who have gathered.

Tradition is key in Timkat rituals: winding horns and religious bells noisily signal the removal of the replica of the Ark of the Covenant, known as the Tabot, from each church. The Tabot has a place at every Ethiopian altar, though it is rarely seen by anyone other than clergy members; during Timkat, it is wrapped in cloth and carried on the head of a priest in an elaborate procession. Once near a chosen body of water, the faithful slumber outside of a ceremonial tent where a priest or priests and the Tabot reside. The priests pray throughout the night. In early morning hours, clergy and laity hold the Divine Liturgy, and the Tabot is used to bless the nearby pool of water where the liturgy is held. As dawn gives way to daylight, priests and clergy dance and sing through the streets—often carrying velvet, sequined umbrellas and bearing robes of equal richness—and the Tabot of each altar is carried back to its place. (View photos of Timkat from the Huffington Post. Or, check out a gallery from the BBC.) On this, the rare occasion when the Tabot is taken from its traditional resting place, it is brought to its full potential as representation of the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he traveled to the Jordan River for baptism.

The Ark of the Covenant is a religious relic in which Ethiopians take special pride. Throughout most of the world, representations of the ancient Ark are symbolic. That’s the case in Ethiopian churches, as well. Hollywood even had its way with this potent symbolism in the Indiana Jones movie series. But the source of Ethiopian pride runs deep: For many centuries, one traditional line of Christian stories holds that the true Ark wound up in an Ethiopian shrine at Axum in northern Ethiopia. For Ethiopian Christians, this is a matter of faith and national pride.

The days of Timkat often bring sunshine and warm weather, as the rainy season is ending in Ethiopia and blue skies greet joyous Christians. Beneath the sun, men, women and children dress in their finest; special meals are shared, usually including freshly brewed Ethiopian mead and beer; and gifts are given to children.

As 2012 is a Leap Year, Ethiopia’s Timkat will begin on Jan. 20 instead of Jan. 19.

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