An Ethiopian Eunuch, the Queen of Sheba, Cush, and other references are plentiful in the Scriptures. Ethiopia is a land rich in Bible history and Christian history and that is what we found as we traveled through the country last month. Our first stop was in the Coptic orthodox churches of Lalibela. A word about the Coptic orthodox first. They trace themselves to the early church. The liturgy is very high, much like the Greek Orthodox church next door, but there are theological differences that stem from the Council of Chalcedon 451 A.D. The Coptic orthodox never accepted the Chalcedonian formula that Christ had 2 distinct natures: Fully God and fully human, not mingled, but also not separate.
So what did we find in the Ethiopian churches and among the people?
First and foremost we found a beautiful people living among amazing architecture with a deep respect and appreciation for symbolism. The churches in Lalibela were magnificent. Priests serve in a specific church, day and night for their entire life and when they die, or get too old to serve, they hand off the keys of the church and all the relics, manuscripts and treasures to the next priest in line. Each church in Lalibela has its own design for a cross. The symbolism is deep in these crosses. For example, the town of Lalibela’s cross has nodules for the 12 apostles, points for the 4 gospels, wings for the seraphim and the Holy Spirit, etc..
Then there are the carvings themselves. On one particular church, the outside is carved in alternating bands of 3 to represent the flogging marks placed upon Christ. As you go inside the church you realize that the same design was carried through the walls to show that the wounds of Christ were deep. The frescoes, icons and weavings were simply magnificent. What is more amazing is that these 11 churches were carved into the bedrock, freed from the ground in order to create a “New Jerusalem,” complete with the Jordan river running through. As you walk through the site you start at the tomb of Adam, proceed across the Jordan river, walk the life of Christ, enter through the eye of the needle, (a narrow passageway), find the church of Christ’s sufferings and finish at the Church of revelation separated by a large chasm. It is a walk through biblical stories and themes.
However, I did find myself asking the question, “Is the Gospel known here, or has the imagery eclipsed the message.” Our tour guide helped me answer that question. As we talked, he said, “There are many things that are good in the church if you understand the words of God yourself, but there are also many things that they teach that Jesus never taught. Our people need to read the Bible more so that they can differentiate the two. We don’t need a priest to go to God, Jesus is our mediator.” He sounded like a regular reformed believer. In fact, as we explored the other areas of Ethiopia, we found men and women who said similar things. Each and every one of them echoed the sentiment that the gospel needs to be spoken clearly so that the ritual isn’t relied upon for salvation.
Pray for these men and women to be strengthened and empowered to proclaim Christ and Christ alone.