"Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God."
A Brief History of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Ethiopia, the land of Judeo-Christianity, is one of the most ancient predominantly Christian countries of the world. It is marked with a fascinating history, unique civilization, culture and religious life. The Book of Genesis recounts: “And the name of the second river is Ghion: the same is it that compasses the whole land of Ethiopia” (Geneses 2:13). The Psalmist David also says: “Let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God” (Psalms 68:31).
Furthermore, historical and archaeological evidences reveal another interesting fact that Ethiopia is the only African country, which has developed its own alphabets and written language. This great land and its people were known by the ancient Greek poets and historians such as Homer, who referred to them as, “Blameless Race.” Herodotus also indicated the country’s landscape as the area south of Egypt and around the Red Sea extending as far as the Indian Ocean. He said that the Ethiopians “lived a long life” and characterized them as “the most just men.”
The Old Testament tells the pilgrimage of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon (1Kgs. 10:1-13). Ethiopic tradition maintains that the relationship that followed paved the way for the introduction of Old Testament to the country. Menilik I, Queen of Sheba’s son from King Solomon, made possible the coming of the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. Since then, Judaic belief and practice became the norm for the daily life of its people. Ethiopia is well known as the Kingdom of Aksum, established by Emperor Menilik I. Historical documents trace the beginning of an independent Ethiopian monarchy as far back as 4522 B.C. At present, in Aksum, the ancient capital and birthplace of Ethiopian civilization and Christianity, antiquity is still present along with its standing obelisk and other artistic features. Aksum has thus remained a religious center to this day.
The Introduction of Christianity
The beginning of Ethiopian Christianity could possibly be traced to the apostolic era. The Book of Acts gives the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch of Queen Candace, who was first evangelized and then baptized by the apostle Philip (Acts 8:26-36). Eusebius, the great Church historian, refers to the Ethiopian Eunuch as “the first fruit of Christianity in the whole world.” In addition, Rufinus followed by Theodret, Socrates and Sozomen also recorded this remarkable event. Nevertheless, it was not until the 4th century that Christianity became the official religion of the Aksumite Empire. This period also saw the inauguration of the Bishopric See and administration of the sacraments.
This is because St. Athanasius of Alexandria consecrated St. Frementius as the first Bishop of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperors Ezana and Syzana (also called Abraha and Atsbaha). King Ezana removed from his coins the sign of the moon and replaced it with the sign of the cross. By doing so, he became “the first sovereign in the world to engrave the sign of the cross on coins.” In A.D. 356 the Arian Emperor Constantinos wrote to the king of Aksum requesting that the Orthodox bishop Frementius as “a corrupter of true Christianity be sent back to the Roman Empire.” Obviously, he wanted the Ethiopian King to become an Arian, but his effort was failed.
St. Frementius came to be known by the Ethiopians as Abba Selama, which means, “the Father of Peace” and Kesate Berhan meaning, “the Revealer of Light”. Moreover, as the first bishop of Ethiopia, he was given the title Abune, meaning “our father,” as an appellation carried henceforth by all primates of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church accepted the three Ecumenical Councils Nicaea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (A.D. 381) and Ephesus (A.D. 431). Therefore, the Nicene-Constantinople creed has become the symbol of our faith.
We believe in one God, the Lord, the Father Almighty, maker of the heavens and the earth and of all things visible and invisible.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of the Father, who was with him before the creation of the world: Light of Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, equal with the Father in his Godhead: By whom all things were made, but without him was not anything made, neither in heaven nor on earth; who for us human-beings and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Mary, of the holy Virgin Mary. He was made man and was crucified for us in the days of Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day as it is written in the Holy Scriptures. He ascended with glory into heaven, sat at the right hand of his Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, we worship and glorify him with the Father and the Son; who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy, universal, apostolic Church. We believe in one baptism for the remission of sin; and await the resurrection of the dead and the life to come, world without end. Amen.
The life of the Ethiopian Church was further strengthened by the coming of the Nine Saints, who came from the Byzantine Empire (479 A.D.). They translated various sacred texts from Greek and Syriac into Ge`ez, spread the Gospel and introduced monastic life. The Ethiopian Church entered a new era during the 6th century, which is marked with the rise of St. Yared, the founder of the Ethiopic Hymnody. The time between the 4th and the 7th century A.D. was a time when remarkable religious activities were undertaken. Ethiopia is considered as the center of Christianity in the Horn of Africa, which preserved its own Christian heritage and history, and became the symbol of independence throughout centuries.
Monasticism in Ethiopia
Monasticism began to flourish in Ethiopia after Christianity became the official religion of the country. The Ethiopic monastic tradition is introduced from the order of St. Anthony in Egypt upon the arrival of the Nine Saints in A.D 480. Thus, Ethiopian ecclesiastical history regards the 4th-6th centuries as the Golden Age. This period was characterized by great evangelical and literary activities.
Just as the monasteries in Europe helped preserve the Western cultural tradition during the Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and its monasteries became the center for the development of Ethiopian art, hymnody, literature and architecture. In the sixth century, St. Yared, the renowned scholar founded the scripture-based liturgical hymnody of the Ethiopian Church. St. Yared’s songs, which constitute the prayer songs and chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to the present day, is one of the most thrillingly melodious prayer songs of the Christian world.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church understands Holy Scripture as “the fruit of the Holy Spirit grown on the tree of tradition.” The Church’s canon of scripture comprises the all the Septuagint Old Testament including the Books of Enoch, Jubilee, the fourth book of Ezra, three books of Maccabees. The canon also consists of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
The doctrinal teaching of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is firmly grounded in the five pillars of mystery, namely:
- Mystery of the Holy Trinity
- Mystery of Incarnation
- Mystery of Baptism
- Mystery of Holy Communion, and
- Mystery of Resurrection.
5.1 The Mystery of the Holy Trinity:
The Mystery of the Holy Trinity is the belief in the Triune God and is the core of Christian faith. This doctrine is a mystery since it could never be known unless revealed by God. “No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). The One God in whom we believe, as is one in divinity and three as distinct persons. The Ethiopian Church accepts this teaching as absolutely central to its theology and spirituality. "There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one" (1 John 5:7).
5.2 The Mystery of the Incarnation:
The Mystery of the Incarnation is the saving entrance of God into human history. The main reason for the incarnation is because our disease needed a physician (Luke 19:10), our darkness needed illumination (Matthew 4:12-17; John 8:12), and our captivity needed a redeemer (Galatian 5:1). Thus, the Creedal confession reads, “For us men and for our salvation the Word of God came down from heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The Ethiopian Orthodox Church upholds the miaphysite Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: “One United Incarnate Nature of God the Son.” In other words, when the two natures, “humanity and divinity,” united, Christ thus became one person and one nature from two natures. The union of the Word of God and humanity took place in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Therefore because of the incarnation, all the attributes of the flesh can be given to the Word of God and vice versa.
Due to this perfect union, which took place without division, separation, confusion and mixture, we can no longer speak of two natures. The Johannine prologue says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (Jn 1:14) Thus, Christ is truly human and truly divine. Theologically, this happened through communicatio idiomatum – the exchange of properties. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria notes, “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine.” This in turn makes possible the divinization of humanity, which enables us to become partakers of the divine nature of God (2 Pet. 1:4).
Due to this perfect union, which took place without division, separation, confusion and mixture, we can no longer speak of two natures. The Johannine prologue says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) Thus, Christ is truly human and truly divine. Theologically, this happened through communicatio idiomatum, the exchange of properties. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria notes, “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine.” This in turn makes possible the divinization of humanity, which enables us to become partakers of the divine nature of God (2 Peter 1:4).
5.3 The Mystery of the Baptism:
The mystery of baptism is the main entrance into the Church and participation in its sacramental grace. It is called mystery because we receive the invisible grace of spiritual adoption through the visible performances of the sacrament. “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:16; John 19:34-35; Acts 2:38) Being the sacrament of initiation into Christian faith, Baptism is performed only once and never repeated (Ephesus 4:4-7; John 3:3-8).
5.4 The Mystery of the Holy Communion:
Christ instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion during the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. Our Lord Jesus Christ commands the disciples to remember His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection in their Eucharistic celebration. In Matthew 26:26-30; Luke 22:19 St. Paul also says, "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you do show the Lord`s death till He comes" (1Corinthian 11:26). Because man does not offer it to God, but God to humankind, the Eucharist is a sacrament through which we are far off from the dominance of sin and attain to communion with God (John 6:53-57). The Eucharist stands at the heart of the early Church*s faith and life. Subsequently, a sacrament became a meeting point on which all the issues of theology converge.
5.5 The Mystery of the Resurrection:
The Mystery of the Resurrection is the mystery of the eternal life in the world to come after our bodily resurrection from dead. This happens at the glorious Second Coming of Christ. Just as every seed must decay first, and then germinate (John 12:24; 1 Corinthian 15:26), so also we all will die and then rise up again to enjoy the eschatological hope of the Kingdom. The Church’s belief in our resurrection is based on the triumphant resurrection of Christ, the first fruit of our resurrection (1 Corinthian 15:20-22). The concluding phrase of the Creed affirms; “And we believe in the resurrection of the dead.”
The Divine Liturgy is the center of Ethiopic worship. It is the gold mine and indispensable core for the Church’s fundamental theology and spirituality. It is a distinctive divine service for it celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus and unceasingly bequeaths to humankind the fruits of the living tree of the cross.
Therefore, the Church’s liturgical celebration has twofold purposes:
- To praise the Almighty God and give thanks to God for the abundance grace and tremendous gifts, which the gracious Lord has given for us through Jesus Christ. Etymologically, the word Eucharist is derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving. Thus, the Eucharist by its nature is the crown of all celebrations and the climax of worship.
- The Holy Eucharist is not a new sacrifice, nor a repetition of the sacrifice on Calvary, since the true and innocent lamb of God is sacrificed once only, for all time. The Holy Eucharist is essentially the seal of the whole process of salvation, through which the Church’s visible expression became fully realized in the assembly of the faithful, both clergy and laity. It is remarkable to note is that Ethiopic liturgical tradition gives strong emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit. At every local celebration of the Eucharist, it is the whole Christ who is present, not just a part of Him. This in turn certainly signifies the Eucharist as the extension of the Incarnation.
History of Establishment Out of Ethiopia
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has had monasteries in Jerusalem for more than 1,500 years. The connection of Ethiopia to Jerusalem dates back to 1,000 B.C. when Queen Sheba visited King Solomon. The baptism of the Ethiopian official at Gaza by the Apostle Philip took place in 34 A.D. (Acts 8:26-40). In addition to these landmark events the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has maintained a place of worship in Jerusalem. At various times historians, travelers and rulers of Jerusalem affirmed the presence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in that great city of God. In the 19th Century the Church expanded its possessions when the Christian Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV began the construction of Debre Genet monastery, which was later, completed during the reign of Emperor Menelik II. Since then, increasing number of churches, chapels, convents and the acquisition of church properties evidences the prominence of Ethiopia in Jerusalem. In the middle of the 20th century the Ethiopian-Jerusalem Organization was established in Addis Ababa to coordinate the annual Easter, Christmas, and Epiphany pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Now the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church faithful in the Diaspora also join this annual pilgrimage. Currently, an Archbishop under a Diocese administers the churches.
People who sought an indigenous African Church brought the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to the Western Hemisphere in the 1930s. Congregations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church were established in Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana in 1952. Since then Churches were subsequently founded in Jamaica, Bermuda, England, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, U.S.A. and Eastern and Southern Africa.
The 1970s saw dramatic increase in the number of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churches in the Diaspora following the arrival of large numbers of Ethiopian immigrants in North America, Europe, Australia, Eastern and Southern Africa. In particular, the spread of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churches in North America was facilitated under the leadership of His Grace Abune Yesehaq, who was the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the Western Hemisphere at the time. The spread of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churches in North America and beyond further intensified by the exile of His Holiness, Abune Merkorios, the 4th Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, along with other renowned and prominent Archbishops in the 1990s, In 2007 the number of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churches and the population they serve reached to the point that, His Holiness Patriarch Merkorios ordained 13 Bishops to serve better the growing EOTC faithful in the USA and Canada.
Brief History of Saint Mary (Kidest Mariam) Church in Toronto
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Toronto was established in 1972 in collaboration with members of the Caribbean (mainly Jamaican) community in Toronto. The congregation remained as a Mission until 1984, lacking a priest and a permanent place of worship. In the same year, Rev. L.K. Messale Engeda came as a priest in charge of the newly established and growing congregation in the Greater Toronto Area. In 1986, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Toronto ,with its 500 registered members, acquired a modest property located at 425 Vaughan Road .
However, due to the growing population of Ethiopian community in the Greater Toronto Area and its peculiar needs, a second Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the name of Menbere Berhan Kidest Mariam (Saint Mary) was established in 1991. During the years between 1991 and 1996, the Church began to provide full service to its congregation at a rented Anglican Church located at 40 Westmoreland Avenue in Toronto. By 1997, the Church purchased properties located at 80 and 84 Tycos Drive in Toronto and continued serving its congregation.
"Thus saith the LORD of hosts; consider your ways. Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the LORD" (Haggai: I: 7-8).
In accordance with this Biblical imperative, the congregation of St. Mary Church had the dream of constructing a new church building respecting the historical and cultural traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The dream began right after the 1997 acquisition of the buildings at 80 and 84 Tycos Drive. Fundraising schemes for the new church building were initiated in 2000. However, due to the urgent and timely renovation work on both 80 and 84 Tycos Drive, the fund raising effort towards the new church building project did not materialise as planned. By August 2006, only $154,000 had been raised for the new church building project. In September, 2006 the Board of Trustees reorganised a new Building Committee with the express duty of carrying out the project to construct a new church building. Accordingly, in consultation with our Bishop (now Archbishop) Abune Dimetros, our Head Priest, Rev. Messale Engeda, members of the Board of Trustees presided by Archdeacon (now Kesse Gebez Rev. Fr.) Hiwot B. Gudeta and prominent members of our congregation , the Building Committee addressed the main issues of location and orientation of the new church building, its detailed design through the hired architect/consultant, Mr. Nino Rico. Getting City of Toronto’s approval of our site plan application was an unexpected hurdle. Our desire for joining both 80 and 84 Tycos properties, building the church at the back to achieve East-West orientation and providing the right number of parking spaces had several by-law and City plan challenges which required resolution by the City Committee of Adjustment. After an enormous effort that took a long time a conditional site plan approval was issued in April 2010.
Foundation Stone was laid on April 18, 2010 by His Holiness Abune Merkorios, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Exile, in the presence of Archbishop Melketsedek General Secretary of the Holy Synod, Archbishop Elias Head of Europe & Africa Dioceses, Archbishop Lukas head of Washington State in USA, the Clergy, various Parishners, distinguished invited guests comprising Federal, Provincial and City officials, members of Canada Council of Churches, other invited guests and the enthusiastic members of our congregation.
By the Grace of God, the spiritual leadership of the Clergy and the commitment of the faithful we now have a brand new church building which was consecrated in November 18, 2012 by His Holiness Abune Merkorios, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Exile, in the presence of Archbishop Melketsedek (General Secretary of the Holy Synod), Abune Elias (Archbishop of the Diocese of Europe & Africa), Abune Lukas (Archbishop of the Diocese of Washington State in USA), Abune Dimetros (Archbishop of the Diocese of Ontario & surrounding regions in Canada). Hence, the spiritual and social services have grown and expanded, serving English mass, counselling, conducting spiritual, educational, financial seminars from time to time.
Rev. L.K. Messale Engeda heads the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Canada. There are presently eight Churches in major cities of Canada, including locations in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Halifax. All these churches own their own place of worship except two, which are in the process of acquiring their own church premises. Every Sunday and on various feast days the church gives spiritual service. The congregation in return expresses their deep faith and dedication to the church by taking part diligently in various administrative and spiritual activities.
It is estimated that members of the Ethiopian community in the Greater Toronto Area exceeds 45,000. The majority of this community is very proud of the rich history of Ethiopia in general and the cultural and artistic heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in particular. They are deeply connected to the spiritual roots of their ancestors and therefore keenly aware of the need to preserve this heritage.
The Menbere Berhan St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church now has close to 1000 active members who pay their subscription on a regular basis and serves the spiritual needs of just as many people every Sunday. The headquarter of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada oversees the foundation and the growth of the Church in the major cities of Canada.