Tag Archives: Orthodox

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, is said to be the largest Orthodox church in the world. The church was built in 1882 to honor the Russians who died between 1877 and 1878 in liberating Bulgaria from the Islamic Ottoman Empire.



The golden dome is 45 meters high.

Christ the Teacher welcomes you into his cathedral.

The interior of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Gazing heavenward.

The iconostasis in the church of Saint Alexander.

From the museum under Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Saint Treime, i.e. Holy Trinity.

Saint Joseph Catholic cathedral

Living Stones, Praying within Hewn Living Stone

My driver, Alex and local tour guide invited me to attend morning prayer with them at Golgotha chapel in the church complex I toured the day before. The Ethiopians do not follow the Gregorian calendar when setting the dates of feasts. Today was the Solemnity of the Annunciation in our calendar but in their calendar it was the Feast of Mary: Promise of Mercy. The Ethiopians have a deep veneration of the Virgin Mary.



As we approached the complex it was so different. This morning the dusty hillside was covered in white.

We entered through this tunnel that gives access to the church.

There was an excitement in the air however I keep saying to my guide: “Do not lose me.” There was a crush of people; however everyone was respectful.

We were working our way to the chapel to the church where there were continual prayers being offered and chanted in different locations.

The sound of these ancient chants was mesmerizing and I was caught in prayer even though I understood no word. The ancient chants of the church whether they are Greek, Ethiopic or Latin move my soul.

The priest came towards me with the cross and was not sure if he should extend it to me for veneration. My driver spoke to him and with a smile he extended the cross for me to venerate. He then returned with a book wrapped in silk on his head. I asked what is that. My local guide said: The Miracles of Mary and he is taking them to be read to the people outside. So we followed him.

The priest read followed by energetic preaching then all of a sudden we turned our attention away from the preacher. Once again I asked: What are we doing? to which he responded we are facing east because we are praying and we always pray facing the east, ad orientem. That made my spirit soar. To pray ad orientem as the early Christians prayed.

Priests are everywhere extending the cross for veneration.

Then I saw people with bowls of ash which I found out was the ash from the incense burnt at morning Mass from which people impose ashes on their foreheads.

Notice that my local guide on the right has ashes on his forehead.

We then began a 40-minute drive to Yemrehanna Kristos. This is different in that it is not hewn out of rock but rather built more than 60 years earlier than the churches of Lalibela. My guide pointed out that in many ways this church which is an excellent example of late Aksumite style, is the blueprint for Lalibela.

Some tracery of saints on the exterior.

The windows alternate between marble and wood with multiple cross designs: Greek, Latin, Maltese, Saint Andrew, which teach the people there are Christians outside Ethiopia.

The priest proudly displayed the church cross.

On our return we began the exploration of what is called the southeastern cluster.

My guide pointed out the the thin sloping path of hewn rock is the path to heaven. If you can walk without falling it means you have no sin. I asked, have you tried this, to which responded with a smiled: as a boy.

I decided not to try.


We entered the church of Bet Gabriel and Rafael.

The original door is of olive wood.

Going through a series of dark tunnels we emerged at Bet Merkurios. In fact it is pitch black. My guide said keep your right hand on the wall and left on the ceiling. He called it the descent into hell to which I responded: a people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. [Is. 9:2] Perhaps this was the most delightful in that every facet of architecture led to theological discussion.

This is so faded but these are beautiful 16th century paintings on canvas.

Our journey through tunnels continued until we reached Bet Emanuel which is a finely carved church.

Notice the rock on the left. This is the rock from which the church was hewn.

More steps…

And more tunnels!

To reach Bet Abba Libanos. Notice from this side view only floor and roof remain attached to the rock.

My guide pointed out the angel eyes on the corner of the capital

We climbed out of the complex to see Golgotha.

And Transfiguration. Remember the whole complex was designed to be a place to pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

We made our way to Bet Giyorgis, the masterpiece of rock hewn churches. The structure is a perfect Greek cross with no internal pillars as my guide pointed out. I was awestruck.

We began our journey this way to the church.

This is a view of saint George church from a hill. This gives a good perspective of how the church was hewn from the rock.

My guide said the church is like Noah’s ark with three stories.

Notice he said the trench symbolizes the flight of the dove and the rock in the corner of Mount Ararat where the ark came to rest. I told him when I am in Turkey I will send him a picture of Mount Ararat.

The grass is floating over holy water. On the final fast day of Lent the priest will bring you a piece of grass like this and you tie it around your head.

My guide invited me to come back because there are many more churches and monasteries to discover. Late in the evening I said goodbye to two traveling companions who have been with me a through the Middle East and the Holy Land. They have found their final resting place. And then to my multiple pairs of socks are worn out.

I must admit I am worn out a bit too. However coming home to Ethiopia 40 years later has been for me a journey that will only lead to further journeys to Ethiopia to discover our rich Christian heritage.

I am flying on to Budapest for Holy Week and then on to Vienna to spend Easter with my family. After that I will continue on to Romania to explore the painted monasteries and churches and then on to the Silk Road in Central Asia.

From Crescent to Cross

This morning my tour guide began to explore Aksum with me as a great riddle to be solved or a mystery of lore to lead to truth. Was Aksum home of the Queen of Sheba? Could Aksum be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant? So much is yet to be excavated. Will further excavation yield hidden treasures?

The exploration began at the northern stelae field. A stela is a monolithic monumental tombstone. The number of registers indicate the number of horizontal burial chambers. Notice the half moon, the crescent and under it a circular metal plate was placed facing the east. The sun and moon were gods worshiped at Aksum before the arrival of Christianity.





Notice the wild ibex motif.

In 340 Emperor Ezana  invited missionaries from Byzantium to preach the Gospel so the symbol changed from crescent moon to cross.

Underground burial chambers


The stelae field

Ethiopia-Axum-6 Ethiopia-Axum-5This can be called the Ethiopian Rosetta stone. This was discovered in 1980 when a farmer was plowing his field. It is a monolithic recording of the extent of his kingdom in three languages: Sabean (5-2 century BC), Geez (a language only used in the liturgy), and Greek.




Ethiopia-Axum-7 We continued to the palace to the tombs of Kings Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. As we approached you have a great view of Adwa where the battle was fought by Menelik against italian aggression.

A view of the way the dressed stone is set.

In Gebre Meskel there are crosses craved into the stone


And an elephant too!

And an elephant too!

Notice the beautiful stone.

Now for a personal experience. Two days ago after lunch when I stepped out of the car a man who was deaf requested alms. I did not have my wallet so I could not give alms. The next day his face haunted me and I prayed the Lord would send another person with a disability to me in Aksum requesting alms. The deaf man’s face and the door of the Promise of Mercy were haunting me. Today as I was ready to get in the car a little boy brought me a man who was blind and requested alms. Thank you Lord for sending him to me so I could offer a token of mercy and compassion.



(The bath is not at the palace).

Is this the bath of the Queen of Sheba? Most likely not since it is only 1000 years old.


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We went to the Dungar Palace that some allege is the palace of the Queen of Sheba. However it dates to the 6th century AD. The most intriguing is that they have excavated and there is a large palace complex from 1000 BC. What is your judgement?


Ethiopia-Axum-15Then on to the center of the Ethiopian religious world whose compound houses a church they claim houses the Ark of the Covenant. And it was the site of the first church built after Ezana’s conversion. We first visited the oldest church in Aksum built in 1665. I sat there and watched a procession that occurs after mass. They process three times around the church imploring the mercy of God. A deacon gave me a personal tour of the church. It contains beautiful icons and wall paintings. And next to the chapel housing the ark are the ruins of the first church built by emperor Ezana. In front of the church is the circular stone where the emperor was crowned before he was lead into the church. The last emperor to be crowned there was Haile Selassie.


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Ethiopia-Axum-18 Ethiopia-Axum-19This church is restricted to men because behind it is a hermitage of monks who are cloistered. They vote who will be the monk to approach the Ark of the Covenant housed in a shrine to the north of the church. It is a life long position. Each day he enters and prays while offering incense.

This is the photo of the shrine.

Then the procession moves to the modern church so the women can join the litany imploring the mercy of God. I sat there mesmerized by the beauty in an attitude of thanksgiving that the Lord answered my prayer and sent a blind man to me requesting alms.

As the afternoon moved on I lingered and was caught up in the fact I was really at the heart of Ethiopian orthodoxy. I looked and saw this man caught up in prayer as he moved his fingers over his rosary.

Ethiopia-Axum-25I went back into the courtyard in front of the church and there you the king was crowned before entry into the church.

And then saw this monk approaching the presence of God in order to pray. When I saw the monk walking to the church I knew I was at the heart and center of the Christian life: prayer. “Pray without ceasing.” [1 Thessalonians 5:17].

Why the Ethiopian Orthodox Lenten Fast?

A few days ago at lunch with my guides I decided to share their Lenten fast. They follow the tradition of the ancient Christian church to abstain from meat, poultry, milk, eggs and butter and basically live on vegetables. It is not so difficult to follow the discipline in a culture that supports it. Every restaurant has Lenten fasting menus and the fast is no sacrifice at all in that all the vegetables are organic and spiced so well that the Lenten fare is a gourmet delight! Today at lunch when they brought to the table another wonderful vegetable dish, I thought if this is a fast bring it on. Seriously, I am so happy to share the fast with my devout Ethiopian driver and guide.

This fast affirms my solidarity with them in faith. They are Orthodox and I am Catholic however I feel such a kindred spirit. Ultimately one fasts for spiritual reasons however at the same time it is a public witness we share the same faith. And that to me is very spiritual. After all our belief in Jesus must be incarnate in all of our relationships. Today my guide told me his recently deceased uncle who was my age, was a priest at Saint Michael Church in Lalibela. That has made my sharing the Ethiopian lenten fast. Even more important to me. I decided to embrace the fast of the host country that has made me feel so welcomed.

My driver and my guide Alex and I are keeping the lenten fast together as brothers in faith. The smile on their face is a joy that is the fruit of the spiritual discipline. This tour is becoming for me a Lenten pilgrimage.


Lost but Found Through Ethiopian Hospitality

Since tomorrow begins a very lengthy and full 14 days on the road through northern Ethiopa I decided that today I would spend a lot of time walking the streets of Addis Abba. If I allowed myself to get lost I knew I would be found by Ethiopians who have a keen sense of reaching out to strangers and making them welcomed. I ordered a metered cab to take me to the Ethnological Museum which is on the grounds of the University of Addis.

The museum is housed in the former palace of the Emperor Haile Selassie who was deposed in 1974. The museum preserves his bedroom and study. The museum houses a wonderful collection of Ethiopian religious art.

When you enter the palace there is an exhibition about the history of the palace and the career and accomplishments of Emperor Haile Selassie. The Center for Ethiopic Studies has set up an exhibit of the history of the development of religious art in Ethiopia. The icons and crosses and liturgical musical instruments are organized and explained so beautifully. The collection is a treasure trove of icons.

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From the museum I decided to walk to the National Museum absorbing the sights and sounds of street life. I decided to visit an Ethiopian Orthodox church. Mass was beginning and I noticed that you must remove your shoes before entering the church.

We often associate this with Islamic practice however this early Christian practice is preserved in the Ethiopian church today. People stand around the courtyard some even in bare feet and chant the Mass because the Mass is broadcasted into the courtyard and even in the streets so people are participating at the walls surrounding the courtyard as you can see from the photos.

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I spoke with a gentleman who said only those who had fasted could enter the church and receive. The Lenten fast is demanding.

At the church I was enthralled at the devotion the people and how beautifully they chanted. The image of a young man sitting on the street outside the gate with his prayer book and people walking by making the sign of the cross and even prostrating on the street for a few moments captivated my soul.

At the gate of His temple


From this church to Saint George Cathedral was a long walk. Since my map was inadequate I was relying on people to help me. People would try with the little English they knew or find someone with a little more command of the language however what was universal was the smile that welcomed me when I approached for directions. The warmth and genuine hospitality of the Ethiopian people is no exaggeration.

The cathedral was commissioned by Emperor Menelik to commemorate his defeat of the Italians in 1896 through the intercession of Saint George whose icon he took into battle and that icon is housed in the church today. In 1930 Emperor Haile Selassie was crowned here. I was unable to enter because Mass was being celebrated however I took great delight sitting in the courtyard listening to the chants and as I walked back to the main square the haunting chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Mass continued to be heard in the busy streets. The public nature of worship was so gripping. I sat at the foot of the statue of emperor Menelik puzzling over where I was and how to get to Holy Trinity Church.


As I sat there people would come up and say welcome. Two young college aged men came up and asked if they could help me. I told them I wanted to go to Holy Trinity to which they said you will need a taxi and I responded I wanted to walk. They said they would walk with me. We had a great conversation about their education and the faith. When they asked me what I did I told them I was a Catholic priest to which they responded we are Orthodox however the Orthodox and Catholic churches are sisters so that made us brothers. We finally arrived at Holy Trinity.

Taking off my shoes at the door I entered and was struck by beauty of the brilliant stained glass. This is the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie.


Abd this is where the imperial couple would assist at Mass in the sanctuary from their thrones of ebony, ivory and marble.

Behind the curtain is the holy of holies where the altar is.


Detail, showing ivory crown

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When I exited the church I took a wrong turn and walked a long way however it was fascinating because all of a sudden the city behind the parliament building became rural.
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All of this stands in stark contrast to the building taking place.

When I realized I was lost again I inquired of a military guard who knew no English however soon there was a crowd of seven people looking at my map trying to help me. One young man said I should take a taxi and I said I did not have enough money to which he said public taxis are cheap. So he said come with me. I followed him and we walked until we came to public taxi which is really a van with many people. I went to pay but he paid and put me on the taxi. We were off and I did not know where to get off however everyone on the taxi became my friends and made sure I got off at the right place.

This was a day of discovery not only of some wonderful museums and churches but more importantly experiencing first-hand the hospitality of the Ethiopian people who were so willing to help me find my way through a maze of streets and alleys. I was lost many times during the day and yet in my wanderings not knowing where to go I was found through the warm welcome of a beautiful people who have professed the Christian faith from almost the beginning of Christianity.



Public Proclamation of Good News

Ethiopia, Day one.

Early this afternoon I walked to the church of the Saviour of the World, a large Orthodox cathedral in Addis Abba.


Although the church was locked there was an endless stream of people coming to the walls of the church to pray. They would fall on their knees and then prostrate themselves three times and each time place their forehead on the ground and pray then stand up and extend their arms in prayer followed by kissing the walls of the church. This ancient prayer of prostration was very moving. Although we think of Muslims assuming this posture of prayer the ancient Christians prayed this way before the advent of Islam.


Priests were stationed around the church and people would come to venerate the cross.

I was struck by the devotion of the people and the faith with which they approched the church. I joined them and said my prayers as well.

I noticed people began to gather at the front of the church and soon a cantor arrived and led them in chants. After some prayers a priest began to preach for about an hour. I decided to join and found an empty chair. I lifted up my head because I was captured by the zeal of the preacher who had the listeners responding to him with Amens!

When I lifted up my head I realized I was surronded by a sea of women fully veiled in white. A gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and led me to sit with the men on the other side of the aisle. I forgot that men and women do not sit together in church.



The priest preached for over an hour and people were taking notes. He was energetic to such an extent that I felt I was at a tent revival in the context of ancient Christian prayers and chants. What struck me was the preaching was outside and big speakers attached to the facade of the church were broadcasting the sermon which was echoing through this neighborhood filled with hotels and banks.

What an experience of a public proclamation of the Gospel. I tried to situate this experience back home. I imagined the priest preaching outside of the cathedral with his voice broadcasted through a financial and tourist district for over an hour. I doubt this would be well received at home!

The evening service concluded with everyone facing the church and on their knees with their foreheads touching the ground in a prostration imploring the mercy of God through the intercession of the Virgin Mary.


In the evening I was walking back to the hotel and an Ethiopian man engaged me in a conversation. He said, “I saw you at church,” and thus we had a great talk. He spoke of how Lent is so important to him. Then he asked me to tell him the word for how Ethiopian Christians pray. I asked him what he meant to which he responded, Muslims pray like the early Christians with the foreheads on the ground to which I responded, “That is a solemn prostration.”

Ethiopia was one of the first nations to embrace the Christian faith. In fact that is why I wanted to return to Ethiopia and experience the ancient chants and rituals and explore the ancient churches in the Highlands. Tonight was a great beginning. The modern city of Addis Ababa has become a magical portal this evening: a gateway to an ancient early Christian culture that still lives and my experience tonight reminds me it is vital.

Early this morning the Ethiopian flight magazine had this caption, The New Spirit of Africa. This evening I experienced a newness of spirit in the preaching of the Gospel in a language I do not understand yet I felt it deeply in my soul through the attentiveness of the hearers of the Word. AMEN.


Children watch as people pray at an outdoor shrine.

Children watch as people pray at an outdoor shrine.