Meskel: The Cross Engulfed in Flames

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a celebration of the discovery of the True Cross in the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox Churches
  • 2018 Date: 27th September
  • Celebrated by: Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians, Ethiopia and Eritrea (as a National Holiday)
  • Linked Holidays: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Christianity)

Background and Theological Significance

Meskel (from the Ge’ez መስቀልmeaning ‘cross’) is an annual festival in the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox Churches that celebrates the discovery of the True Cross by St Helena in about the year 326 CE. Veneration of the True Cross – the Cross on which Jesus Christ is said to have died – has been widespread throughout Christian history and is a feature of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican worship. Most Churches nowadays focus their veneration on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross which is usually celebrated on 14th September. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox Churches celebrate this important festival in a distinctive style on the 17th Day of Maskaram, which falls each year on 27th or 28th September according to the Gregorian calendar.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church are two of the six Churches that form the Oriental Orthodox Church. The Oriental Orthodox Church separated from the worldwide Catholic Church in the fifth-century CE (centuries before the schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches) following the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. The Council of Chalcedon adopted a theological definition that declared that Jesus Christ is one person with two distinct natures (human and divine), which certain Churches felt unable to accept. These Churches eventually separated and formed their own communion of independent Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Church, which shared the theological belief that Jesus Christ has only one nature that is both human and divine (a belief often referred to as Miaphysitism). The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches were both under the authority of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria until the twentieth-century, when they were granted independent status due to political developments in their respective countries.

The festival of Meskel is one of the most important celebrations in the liturgical year for both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches. It is a time to celebrate the life and death of Jesus Christ and to show veneration to the Cross on which he died. It also serves as a reminder of the distinctive history and theology of the Churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

History

The True Cross was supposedly discovered in about the year 326 CE by the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Helena was a devout Christian who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, according to tradition, recovered the remnants of the Cross near the site of the crucifixion (the place would later become the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The pieces of the True Cross were divided between Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople, and over the centuries are believed to have been further divided so that many churches could possess fragments as objects of veneration. The date of 14th September has been associated with both the discovery of the Cross by Helena and also with the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre nine years later, and this day remains the principal date for the Feast of the Exaltation worldwide.

Ethiopia has a long and distinguished Christian history and was one of the very first countries to adopt Christianity as the official religion. In the Middle Ages a relic of the True Cross was brought to the country as a relic for veneration. The arrival coincided with a pagan festival of spring and the two merged to form the celebration of Meskel. Meskel has become one of the most important celebrations in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, not only for Christians but for people of other faiths and no faith too and is nowadays observed as a public holiday in both countries.

The Ethiopian solar calendar is based on the Coptic and ancient Egyptian calendars and is composed of twelve months with a short intercalary period to align with the solar year. The first month of the Ethiopian year is called Maskaram, named after the festival of Meskel, which usually begins on 11th September in the Gregorian calculation. The festival of Meskel is held on the 17th Day of Maskaram, which falls on 27th September in the Gregorian calendar or 28th September in a leap year.

What Happens?

The festival of Meskel typically begins on the evening of 26th September (or 27th September during a leap year). Ritual bonfires known as ‘demera’ are lit throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea, including a prominent bonfire in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. This relates to a Christian tradition that the Empress Helena (also called Eleni) received a vision in a dream that she should light a bonfire and follow the smoke in order to locate the True Cross. The demera bonfires are constructed out of long poles decorated with small yellow daisies, which are now called ‘meskel flowers’ after the festival. Meskel coincides with the end of the rainy season in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and these flowers are in full bloom at the time of the festival. The bonfire is blessed with incense and set alight, symbolising the fire and smoke that led Helena to the site of the Cross in Jerusalem. The following morning, the ashes from the bonfire are used to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful (a very similar tradition to the marking of the forehead on Ash Wednesday). The festival is also celebrated by colourful processions, dancing and sharing food. The festivities in Addis Ababa and Asmara are particularly spectacular and are attended by thousands of people of all faiths and none each year.

In 2013 the celebration of Meskel was added by UNESCO to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, demonstrating its cultural and social significance. Meskel brings together both the worldwide Christian veneration of the True Cross with a distinctly Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage that shows how faith and culture influence and enrich each other in societies across history.

Demera engulfed in flame Meskel 2013‘ by Brendan Vaughn is licensed under CC by SA 3.0

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