Christianity is expanding at a tremendous rate in Africa and Asia. Tens of thousands convert to Christianity each year in China alone. We usually assume that Christian churches in Africa and Asia stem from Western Europe or American missionary efforts over the last several centuries. This is true to some extent but there are ancient non-European churches which go back to the time of the Apostles. This is true of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a church of 40 to 45 million believers.
The Orthodoxy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church differs from the Orthodoxy of the Russian, Greek, Georgian, Ukrainian, etc. Church in that the Ethiopians (together with the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church and others) believe that Jesus Christ had only one nature, divine. Whereas we believe that Christ has two natures, divine and human. In modern times theologians of all these churches have held discussions to try to understand what each church believes, how they differ and what they hold in common. We pray that God will aid their discussion – the great work of Christian unity.
The origins of Christianity in Ethiopia go back to the age of the apostles. If we look at the Book of Acts (8:26-40) we see the story of an official of the queen of Ethiopia converted and baptized by the apostle Philip. According to tradition, when this official got back to Ethiopia he laid the foundation for Christianity in this country, although not much is known about this period. The Ethiopian Church enters more clearly into the historical record with the activity of St. Frumentius, whom we commemorate on November 30th. St. Frumentius was a Syrian Greek who lived in the fourth century. He was captured by pirates when he was a child and sold as a slave to the king of Ethiopia. The king liked him and made him the teacher to the royal heir. The king freed St. Frumentius before he died and St. Frumentius remained in Ethiopia teaching and spreading the Gospel. He was so effective at preaching Christianity that many Ethiopians converted. Realizing that this church needed priests and bishops, he journeyed to Alexandria in Egypt. The Patriarch of Alexandria consecrated St. Frumentius a bishop and sent him back to Ethiopia where he continued preaching the Gospel and as we can see from this rather large church; his missionary efforts have borne much fruit.
The example of St. Frumentius and the Ethiopian Church shows us that Christianity cannot simply be thought of as a religion of Europeans and Americans, but a church for all humanity.
This feast celebrates the entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem of the Mother of God, Mary. According to tradition the Virgin Mary was born to a holy, elderly couple named Joachim and Anna. They had prayed for many years for a child and when humanly unable to have children, God answered their prayers and gave them a daughter. In gratitude to God for answering their prayers they dedicated the child Mary to the Temple, i.e., to God. When she was three years old, she was led to the Temple and brought into the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was the place of God’s special presence among the Hebrew people and only the High Priest was permitted to enter there. She lived at the Temple praying, learning the Bible and attending the services in the Temple, and doing sewing and needlework for the Temple. She lived there until her marriage to St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus Christ.
This story is not found in the Bible but is present in the very early Christian tradition, showing that the story was handled down by the early Church. Although it is probably impossible to “prove” this historically, the meaning of it is quite clear. First of all, the Holy of Holies symbolizes God’s presence within the Jewish people. Of course, God is “everywhere present and fills all things”, but the Temple was the special focus of his presence. This feast shows that the true temple, the true dwelling place of God with human beings is not the man-made temple, but rather Jesus Christ and the mother who gave birth to Him. In other words, the Virgin is the living Holy of Holies in whose womb dwelt God. No longer is access to God limited by place or ethnicity, but is now present to all humanity. It is for this reason that we honor the Theotokos, the Mother of God, on this feast.
The church commemorates St. Matthew on November 16th. Evangelist, in this context, means a person who wrote a Gospel. Tradition identifies the author of the first Gospel with Matthew, the tax collector whom Jesus called in Matthew 9:9-13. Tradition tells us that he wrote this Gospel in the Aramaic or Hebrew, a language which was then translated into Greek. Modern scholars doubt this, but there is no question that the first Gospel is the most “Jewish” of the four Gospels. Saint Matthew shows that Jesus Christ is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament and will often write of Jesus’ words or deeds saying “…. This was done so that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets” showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophesy. In addition, St. Matthew collects our Lord’s teaching into five sections which reminds us of the five “Books of the Law” (the first five books of the Old Testament) given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Normally, when we think of a Gospel, we mean a book of the New Testament. But our four Gospels where probably not written before the second half of the first century AD, and were not collected into a book until considerably later. But in the teaching of the early church, i.e., the church which existed before the Gospels were written as we see in the Book of Acts, which describes the early sermons of the apostles, or Saint Paul’s epistles (which were written before the Gospels) we find expressions such as these: “to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20: 24) or “…I am ready to preach the Gospel to you who are in Rome also” (Romans 1:15). Clearly when the apostles used the word Gospel in their teaching they were not referring to the books of the Gospels.
Our English word Gospel comes from the Old English “God-spell” which means good news. This is a translation of the Greek word for Gospel “evangelion” which means good news. In this sense the word Gospel refers not so much to a written text, but rather the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. One could even say that Jesus Christ himself is the good news, the reconciler of humanity and God.
Therefore, the Gospel is not so much a text bound in a book but rather the good news of God’s victory over sin and death accomplished by Jesus Christ.
When we use the word symbol in English we usually mean that something “stands for” something else, as when we say that a flag symbolizes a nation. But there is also a sense in which symbol means not real. When some Christians say that Jesus Christ is symbolically present in Holy Communion they seem to mean that Christ is not really present in Holy Communion. However, we call our fundamental Orthodox statement of faith, the Creed (I believe in one God….) the Symbol of Faith. But by calling the Creed a symbol, the church certainly does not mean it is not real. However, the opposite of the word symbolic is not real, but rather diabolic.
On November 8th the church celebrates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The angels are referred to in the Creed which says “I believe in one god… maker of all things visible and invisible”. The word invisible refers to the angels. The angels have the duty of praising God and acting as messengers between God and humanity. But we also must remember that the devil is a fallen angel. Our word devil comes from the Greek word diabolos, which breaks down to a prefix “dia” meaning apart, separate and “ballein” meaning to throw. So diabolos means the one who throws apart. And this is indeed what the devil does. He sows discord, tearing human beings away from God (Adam and Eve in the garden) from each other (Cain killing Abel and the entire history of human violence), and away from nature. For that matter, he divides human beings within themselves.
And this is where the word symbol comes in. It too is a Greek word combining the prefix “syn”, meaning together and “ballein”, to cast. In other words Jesus Christ the church celebrates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The angels comes to us as the one who reunites humanity with God, human beings with human being and humanity with nature. As St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Ephesians “[Christ] is our peace, who has made both one and has broken down the middle wall of separation.” (Eph 2:14) and in Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ.” (Gal 3:28)
This process of the healing of alienation and hostility began with Christ’s life, death and resurrection and will be completed at the end of time. However, as we wait in hope of Christ’s second coming let us work in our own way to heal any hostility or alienation we encounter in ourselves, others, in society or in the world.