The 26th of September is the eve of Meskel, the “Finding of the True Cross,” the day Orthodox Christian Ethiopians believe Jesus’ cross was found many centuries ago. All over the country, bonfires called “Demera” were burned this past Monday evening to celebrate the coming day.
On the twenty-sixth, we headed for Meskel Square in the center of for the one-of-a-kind event. Walking on Bole Road toward the main attraction, I felt for the first time what it might be like to be on a pilgrimage. Surrounded by believers while walking, my wife and I ducked into the shade whenever possible, taking refuge from the hot sun with some of the others on their way to Meskel.
Soon we were in our seats on the terraced grass amphitheater only a few rows back from the front to the far right of the Demera. A sun-drenched sky pockmarked with a few cottontail clouds shined down on the biggest soon-to-be bonfire I have ever seen. From my vantage, the structure looked to be thirty feet high.
Bishops, priests, deacons, women and children dressed in colorful, and some magnificent, robes gathered around the Demera. Some groups paraded past us, singing songs, drumming large drums, chanting. Flags wishing peace and prosperity for Africa , the end of HIV/AIDS and other hopes unfurled as each group representing the many parishes of Addis shared their Meskel hopes with the crowd of on-lookers in the tens of thousands.
The excitement grew as 5:30 neared. The flatbed truck carrying the Lalibela and Aksum worshippers, complete with a band, worked the crowd to a frenzy. Singing traditional songs in Amharic, people rose to their feet and danced along. High-pitched ululating rang out from the revelers. I joined in with a little ululating myself.
The energy was high, the mood was festive. Goosebumps ran down my arms. I was as excited as those around me.
A few dignitaries played the political game before the lighting of the Demera. Speeches promising wealth and good health bored the people. Not soon enough, the rhetoric ended and the patriarch got up from his seat.
The people roared their approval. Deafening collective voices reminded me of the sound when the home team scores a touchdown.
A pep rally for Christ. Not in the evangelical, born-again way. I was at a spirited gathering of humanity that believed in the victory of their Jesus’ cross.
The torches were lit. Flames danced off of them. The rising tide of anticipation and excitement grew ever louder. Gas was dumped on the wood and grasses making up the Demera.
“Burn it, Burn it,” I said to my wife in a primal voice. Something about fire…
And then the ceremonial lighting of the bonfire occurred. Holy men and women quickly moved back from the huge flaming structure. The people cheered, sang and chanted. More ululating. More goosebumps.
The sun was setting as the Demera became fully engulfed in flames. Meskel was here. Meskel was alive.
This is the place to be right now. This is a celebration like no other. This is a mass of people singing in unison. This is dancing without looking over shoulders. This is a booming drum that reverberates in the soul. This is an ululation that pierces the heart and spills the blood of people who are willing to die on that cross. This is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the only African church that was a member, and still is, of the first gathering of the . This is , the land where Christianity was first rooted on the African continent. This is Meskel. This is the Demera. This is where shines like the burning sun above.
Walking out to find a taxi to carry us home, we ran into two Ethiopian Good Shepherd Sisters we have befriended as part of our project. They are Catholic sisters. As they told us, all Christians can enjoy Meskel. They even added that everyone could come and enjoy Meskel. It is for everyone.
As one of the parish groups marched by us singing and drumming, I couldn’t have agreed more. I believed that Jesus’ cross was found, and that owned the right to have it…
…wherever it is.
(written 2 October 2005)