Meet in the Place of the Holy Mystery: Stepping into an Ancient Religious Tradition through the Doorway of the Eritrean Orthodox Church

Dating back to the 9th century BC, Ge’ez is an extinct language that is used only in the liturgy of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches.
Reflections on a visit to an Eritrean Orthodox Church in Oakland, U.S.A. Dating back to the 9th century BC, Ge’ez is an extinct language that is used only in the liturgy of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches.

By Dr. Samuel Mahaffy,

THE invitation to “meet to communicate in the place of the holy mystery” came in the form of a chant in the ancient language of Ge’ez. In the heart of the City of Oakland, California, I am invited to worship in a church tradition as ancient as the Kingdom of Aksum and the legendary ‘wise man from the East’ who bore frankincense to testify to the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem.

My journey to the Oakland Eritrean Orthodox Church extends the warm welcome I received at the Western US. Eritrean Festival where I was an invited speaker and happy celebrant of the rich culture and traditions of the people of Eritrea. In the small entry room to the sanctuary, I slip off my shoes and place them in a plastic bag handed to me by the respected elder in this community who graciously invited me. 

We make our way quietly to the third row from the front of the sanctuary drawn by the mix of the Ge’ez chants and the growing aroma of burning incense. I am in the company of the elders of this community. Each turns with a nodded welcoming greeting while not losing concentration on the curtained doorway framing the alter where a company of priests in royal attire will lead worship.

Eritrea, a country the U.S. State Department prefers to invisiblize, is custodian through the Eritrean Orthodox Church of a religious tradition inextricably interwoven with the biblical narratives taught in every major Christian denomination in the West. The border region between the modern countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia lay at the heart of one of the greatest civilizations of late antiquity–The Kingdom of Aksum.

Downtown Asmara where one finds the peaceful co-exist of different religions, for hundreds of years, respecting their differences
Downtown Asmara where one finds the peaceful co-existence of different religions, for hundreds of years, by respecting their differences

The ‘Ethiopian Eunuch’ who invited the Apostle Phillip into his chariot and converted to Christianity was a treasurer for the wealth of Aksum. By the legends and records of this region, the wise man from the East who bore frankincense to Bethlehem to honor the birth of the Christ child was King Bazen. A tomb memorializes him on the Adwa road in the southeastern sector of what was once the metropolis of Aksum. The frankincense he carried was a precious and hallmark commodity of the trade plied by Aksum across the Red Sea and between continents.

During the Eritrean Orthodox service, I lean on a carved wooden cane–conveniently as tall as myself– provided to support the elder worshipers during the long periods of standing for ancient chants recounting the Gospel story. The warm still air of the sanctuary is filled now with the rich aroma of incense coming from the brass incensory swung rhythmically by the priests as they parade slowly between the veiled alter and the congregants.

I find myself drifting back to the ruins of the Kingdom of Aksum located within walking distance of my home in Senafe, Eritrea–close to the border with Ethiopia. I remember walking in the early morning mists a few short kilometers down the road from Senafe to Matera. Emerging from the mists like an ancient shrouded giant was a roadside obelisk with an inscription in Ge’ez. The ruins of a city from the Aksumite era lay exposed by an archaeologist and straddled the ruins of an even more ancient civilization from before the time of Christ–the Sabean civilization. I played as a child in these pages of history, climbing, with too little awareness, through rooms and tombs that were once the dwelling places and resting places of previous civilizations. Massive slabs of carved stones, shaped to be steps into temples, are a testament to the skilled craftsmanship of this civilization of antiquity.

My awareness shifts back to the Oakland sanctuary as a two-year old Eritrean boy moves alone, slowly and deliberately, down the center aisle toward the priests in the front of the sanctuary and the sacred alter. He is mesmerized by the sights, smells and chants as he passes rows of elder Eritrean men on his left and elder Eritrean women on his right. None reach out to stop him or pull him back. He pauses at the step up toward the platform where communion will soon be served. Without a pause in the chants or the ceremony, the priest leading the service eyes the two-year old boy with discerning and steady gaze. Is there an ancient call from across the centuries that draws him toward this alter? I wonder if he will be one of the next generation of priests carrying forward this ancient religious tradition. Or, in his life-time will the Ge’ez language and the transmission of these chants of mystery be tragically lost to a younger generation?

As I leave the sanctuary of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Oakland, my desire to step into the learning of the Ge’ez language is renewed. The learning of languages has always been for me a way to ‘communicate in the place of the holy mystery’ and step into the plethora of pathways and traditions through which we find that which is sacred. I wonder that the world has come to warring over which is the ‘right’ pathway.

I honor that the country of Eritrea has integrated the practice of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum in embracing the peaceful co-existence of diverse religious traditions. It was to the Kingdom of Aksum that followers of the Prophet Mohammed fled from persecution in the earliest days of the establishment of the religion of Islam. They were welcomed there. To this day, Eritrean mosques and Orthodox Christian churches peacefully co-exist in the capital city of Asmara and across the country.

My friend, Emilio DeLuigi, who spent chapters of his life in Eritrea, notes that it is one of the few secular governments that truly separates church and state. Among the celebrants at the Western U.S. Eritrean Festival and in the government of Eritrea itself are Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Evangelical Christians and practitioners of other faith traditions working and living side-by-side to build a country of inclusion.

The political agenda of those who would invisiblize Eritrea and promote Ethiopia for some short-sighted strategic economic-political dominance of the region seems infantile when I consider that the Aksumite civilization of antiquity encompassed both. I wonder that the Kingdom of Aksum, once considered by some to be one of the three greatest civilizations in its time, is so lost in historical accounts.

I return to the ancient ruins of the Sabean and Aksumite civilizations outside of Matera, Eritrea. Do we know what civilizations lie under our very feet? Are there places sacred to indigenous peoples in this country lying bulldozed and buried beneath the grounds where we have constructed grandiose cathedrals and houses of worship? We are always place-making wherever we are. Are we co-constructing places where we can ‘communicate in the place of the holy mystery’ or have we defiled and invisiblized those places? How do we find that which is sacred in ordinary life, in our daily relationships?

Even if I do not realize my desire to learn the Ge’ez language in my lifetime, I will carry in my being the sacredness I found in the Eritrean Orthodox Church on a Sunday morning in Oakland, California. I will continue to honor that Eritrea, along with Ethiopia, is the custodian of a rich religious, cultural and linguistic tradition. I hope that the West steps back enough from intervention in the affairs of both countries and our self-centered agenda for the region, to allow a relationship of peace to emerge between the two nations on their own terms.