The Orthodox Christian faith is the oldest form of Christianity and is pre-denominational. Orthodox churches are full of beautiful icons, art and relics of Jesus Christ, saints and angels. Orthodox Christians pray to these saints, mostly to Virgin Mary, so that they may pray for them, just like people ask friends to pray for them. Acts 19:11–12 tells that God gave Paul the power to perform miracles using religious objects, showing that God uses religious art as something deeper than just art to look at. In this picture, there are also two light-adorned crosses to celebrate Good Friday and Easter.
Here, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians attend worship at Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Los Angeles. This picture was taken on Easter Eve. Orthodox people attend church on Saturday night (Joyous Saturday) to commemorate the day Jesus' body lay in the tomb. Service starts at about 7 pm and ends early Easter morning at around 2:00 am. Members of the church light candles to represent Jesus Christ as the Light of the World .
The Orthodox Church’s clergy is made of men only, possibly to symbolize the men who followed Jesus during His time on Earth. Here, the priests, choir members, and congregation celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and his imminent ascension. This part of mass is very joyous with singing and the playing of traditional Ethiopian drums named kebero . The priests have a call-and-response type of section here. In Ge’ez (the ancient language of Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language), they say “Christ has Risen!” and the congregation responds “He is Risen!”
Here, a member of the church walks around with the Bible from which the Gospel is read from during Mass. It is usually brought around by a Deacon, but during special holidays with too many church-goers, distinguished members of the church can take around the Bible so that every person can kiss it. Kissing the Bible can give people a more tangible connection to the religion. A person with an umbrella also accompanies the person holding the Bible. The umbrella is used to show honor and respect to a holy object; here it is the Holy Bible. Looking at the greater picture, this act represents the great respect Ethiopians have for distinguished people and holy matters. Ways to show respect are by taking off shoes and for women, covering the head during church.
Orthodoxy has many ties with the Old Testament and aspects of Judaism. Shoes are taken off in the church to honor Exodus’ story regarding the Burning Bush. Men and women traditionally sit separately and Orthodox people also follow most of the dietary laws found in Leviticus. Incense is burned in the church, just like the Jews in the Temple of Jerusalem did in Exodus 30. Revelation 8:4 says that incense represents prayer rising up to God. For Orthodox Christians, the charcoal represents humans, marked ‘dirty’ with sin, and the fire on top of the charcoal represents the Holy Spirit, like how the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in the form of fire. This shows the immense importance of confession and repentance (to not be ‘dirty’ with sin) for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
Communion is among the most important sacraments of the Orthodox Church. It can potentially be done every week. Communion on special holidays is particularly done by adults. They previously do confession with a priest so that they are prepared for communion. Because communion during this holiday is at about midnight, communion takers fast the entire day so that the bread and wine are the first things they eat. After the church service, there is a huge dinner with to celebrate Easter and the end of a 55 day long Lent. During Orthodox Lent, animal products of any kind are forbidden. The participation in the Easter Lent represents the importance in self-constraint and humbleness in Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
Here, choir members sing gospel songs in Amharic. The instruments used are minimal—just an Ethiopian drum called the kebero and the keyboard. The time when the choir sings puts the church in a more vibrant mood. There is an adult choir, young adult choir and a children’s choir. Here, the choir is comprised of older men and women wearing traditional Ethiopian clothes. Church attire varies from person to person, but it is most likely that both men and women dress conservatively and formally. On holidays, both men and women usually wear traditional Ethiopian clothes.
Here, there is a young girl praying in front of the altar. It was after the church service when I took this picture. With her hair covered for respect, she bows down in front of the altar, as most Ethiopians do during prayer. The curtains open during liturgy only and represent the gates of Heaven, with the congregation being “Earth”. It symbolizes that being connected to the church can bring people closer to Heaven.
This picture of Abba Thomas was taken before the Easter service began. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is facing an interesting phenomenon where non-Ethiopian members are attending the church. Though almost 100% of the members of Virgin Mary Orthodox Church are Ethiopian, there are some members who are not but are just as Orthodox. Many non-Ethiopian members are Rastafarians of all races. This man is Abba Thomas, a clergy member who joined the church about four years ago. He was a Russian Orthodox priest before joining but found such great interest in the Ethiopian Orthodox church that he is now a revered priest at Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He does not speak Amharic or Ge’ez but appeals to the few non-Ethiopian, English speakers of the church.
In this picture taken before the service, a young church member asks a priest to pray with her. Prayer is crucial in the Orthodox Church, and group prayer is loved even more. A priest’s role in prayer and in confession is to act as one of Jesus’ disciples. Before Jesus resurrected after his death, John 20:23 in the New Testament says that He constructed his disciples to forgive the sins of people in Jesus’ name. Thus, priests are used to pray for people so that God may forgive their sins. Priests themselves certainly do not forgive people of their sins. This practice reflects the close relationship and respect Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have for priests as holy people chosen to act as modern-day disciples.