If we were in Ethiopia or in the garden of any Ethiopian Orthodox church of the world on September 27th, we would find ourselves witnessing a unique spectacle in the panorama of Christian churches.
We would be standing before a pyramid of firewood several meters high that rises straight into the sky, something unusual that perhaps we would never have seen before. Surrounded by clergy dressed in celebration garments, this mountain of wood remains the centre of attention adorned with Ethiopian flag coloured banners.
If we were to wait a little while, we would see the priest, after numerous blessings and ritual songs, light the first spark to set fire to the whole pyre (Demera). Flames and smoke will then rise upwards for hours as in a dance moved by the wind. Similarly the choir will remain to dance for hours to the rhythm of the drum and of the sacred instruments invoking ancient songs.
It is Meskel Day and, according to the Ethiopian liturgical calendar, occurs every September 27th. It is a national holiday in Ethiopia and celebrated in the same way wherever there is an Ethiopian Orthodox community. The word Meskel, in Amharic, means “cross” and this special occasion commemorates the finding of the true cross of Iyasos Krestos.
The tradition recalls that around 330 AD Queen Sant ’Elena, known in Ethiopia as Nighist Eleni, mother of the first Roman Christian emperor Constantine, found the cross on which Iyasos Krestos was crucified. The queen was deeply devout and lived a life of prayer, some historical sources tell us that she was even a Nazirite practicing her spiritual life in a very profound way according to the ancient vow described in the book of Numbers chapter 6. One night she received a divine revelation in which she was told to erect a giant pyre of wood and incense and make it burn. She would have to wait until the flames had subsided and the bonfire almost completely reduced to ashes, when the smoke would have indicated to her the place where the cross lay. Similarly, to what is described in chapter 40 of Exodus in the verse 34-38 where the cloud of smoke rising above the Tabernacle indicated the way to follow.
It was the Jerusalem of the fourth century AD and the sacred wood was found and divided into parts which were then distributed to the most important churches around the world. One of these fragments reached Ethiopia where it is still kept in the church of Gishen Maryam in the Wollo region.
Every year on September 27th, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Tawahedo is the only Christian family to celebrate this anniversary. Thousands and thousands of faithful flock to the courtyards of the main churches and, in Addis Ababa, the ceremony takes place in the famous and central square of Meskel Square from which it takes its name. The celebration then ends when the flames are extinguished and the whole bonfire becomes blessed ash with which the faithful draw a cross directly on their forehead. The day then continues between feast and family reunions in which fasting that lasted from the previous day is interrupted.
In 2013, Meskel was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UN Agency for Education, Science and Culture.
The spiritual meaning of this festivity is obviously the devotion to the saving power of the Cross, from there Iyasos Krestos died and then, once in the sepulchre, rose again assuring eternal life. The Cross is a warning to forgiveness and compassion, to the renewal of the spirit and the body in the way of life that the Gospel expresses. The cross is the victory over death, or evil, annihilation, despair and division. The Cross is the element that unites Heaven and earth in the perfect harmony which is the flow of life that does not stop and is not interrupted.
If we enter an Ethiopian Orthodox church we will see many crosses, some hanging from the necks or in the hands of priests and deacons, some very small used as a pendant by the faithful ones, and even much bigger ones carried in procession during ceremonies. We will rarely see the crucifix, the cross with the body of Christ dying, this is because the emphasis of Orthodox Christianity is precisely life. Unlike other Christian churches, therefore, Ethiopians celebrate the cross left empty by the risen Christ.
Even in the Rastafari Tradition, of course, the Meskel or Ethiopian cross is present. Many brothers and sisters in fact wear it around their neck or it is still present on the walls of houses or stands next to their Bible.
If we look closely at a Meskel we will see that it is made up of many intertwined lines according to angular or fluid geometric patterns. Those are in many cases like endless knots. This symbolizes the life that flows and becomes eternal thanks to the miracle of the Cross, which the Meskel represents.
In Ethiopia, this festival also marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of a new cycle of sun and heat that takes the place of the pungent humidity and the clouds that rest at length on the highlands during the months from June to September. The same capital Addis Ababa, located at 2200 meters on the sea level, often during the summer season remains covered for days by dense clouds that then explode in frequent rainfall. By the end of September, the land is rich in water and the green meadows are covered with a oltitude of yellow flowers called the “Meskel daisies” which in this period colour the whole country. Families go out to collect them to compose bouquets that they will then take with them on the Feast of the Cross. The same fire pyre is often decorated with these lovely bright yellow flowers.
Ian’I Rastafari, observing the depth of the events, also meditates on the fact that on September 27th not only is the Meskel festivity but also commemorates another very important event.
On this day, in fact, back in 1916, the twenty-four year-old governor Tafari Makonnen took the title of Ras, or king, leader of the people of Ethiopia. This investiture was followed by the appointment as Official Heir to the Throne and Crown Prince accompanied by the very important position of Regent Plenipotentiary. This last title made Tafari Makonnen the de-facto ruler of the millennial Empire of Ethiopia. Empress Zauditù continued to officially govern the country but in reality and in practice, the young but already highly skilled Tafari was now the one who administered the imperial power.
The thing that is worthy of note is that this prophetic event signified that from that moment He became “Ras” Tafari Makonnen and therefore for the first time in history the two words Ras and Tafari were juxtaposed creating the name of our Movement which is precisely RASTAFARI.
Although the Rastafari revelation would manifest as a spiritual movement only fifteen years later in colonial Jamaica, the name came to life on 27 September 1916. It is no coincidence that that day fell on the very festivity of Meskel, the Holy Cross through which Iyasos Krestos conquered death and established eternal life. Death on the cross and then resurrection in fact inaugurated the waiting period for His return as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
According to Rastafari tradition, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie The First is the Christ returned in His kingly characters to bring to fulfilment the promise that had been announced just before crucifixion on the Golgotha. He himself said that in order for the Kingdom of God to be established on earth the Son of Man would have had to leave this world meaning die on the cross (and then resurrect). Therefore, on the day of the Meskel 1916 the name Ras Tafari was manifested in the world. That was the first manifestation, even if only at nominal level, of the Movement that would have declared that Christ had returned to earth to reign for the eternity.
Looking at further events, we know that on November 2, 1930, in the Cathedral of Saint George in Addis Ababa, Ras Tafari was crowned by the Church with the titles of King of Kings, Lord of the Lord, Lion Conqueror of the tribe of Judah, Elected of God , Light of this World. He took on the new name (which was already His baptismal name) Qadamawi Haile Selassie. From that day on he was never called Ras Tafari again.
An interesting and prophetic thing happened. The name Ras Tafari did not disappear but became the term used to name the first preachers who announced that Haile Selassie was God on earth, the returned Christ. They would call themselves in fact “the Rastafari” In doing so the prophecies were fulfilled: the Messiah assumed His new and heavenly name but at the same time His children took His earthly name giving life to the Rastafari Movement. It was the realization in the history of the incarnation of God in man, what is called in the Livity Rastafari “God in man”. On the day when the Messiah became the elect of God, he chose the rest of his people who would respond to the final call. The day He wore the Eternal Crown by taking the title of Emperor at the same time he crowned Ian’I Rastafari to be Rasses, or humble “rulers” on this Creation devoted to use the Livity or way of life, in order to help him in governing the world according to the teaching of Gospel. The promises of Isaiah and the Prophets were thus fulfilled. A new era of light and warmth began.
Perhaps just like in Ethiopia, the Meskel festival marks the beginning of the new hot and bright season.