Meskel (The day of the Holy cross) is one of the most significant
holidays celebrated by Ethiopian Orthodox Tewadeho Church believers.
It has been celebrated for over 1,600 years. It is celebrated on Meskerem
17th (27th of September). The word actually means "cross"
and the feast commemorates the discovery of the True Cross upon which
Jesus was crucified by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine
the Great. The original event took place on 19 March, AD 326, but
the feast is now celebrated on 27 September.
The story in brief is that after the crucifixion of the Lord, the
sick were healed by touching it and rubbing their bodies against the
Cross. Attracted by these miracles, many became Christians. Seeing
this, the Jews threw the Cross into a rubbish disposal pit and after
a long time this place grew into a hill. Christians knew the area
despite their inability to dig out and retrieve it.
In the 4th century, (327 AD) the mother of King Constantine, Queen
Helena, made a trip to Jerusalem to find the Cross. But she could
not trace the place for no one could tell her the exact location.
Since the finding of the Cross was God's Will, a certain old man by
the name of Kiriakos (Kirakos Yared's Hymn Book of Helena) sympathizing
with her search, advised her as follows. "You need not tire out
yourself and others in vain. Make people gather wood and pile it.
Put incense on it and burn it. Following where the smoke drifts, dig
and you will find out the Cross." She did all that she was told.
The incense smoke rose upward and bowed down indicating the site where
the Holy Cross was buried (Yared's Hymn book of Helena). She then
dug and found out the Cross. The Ethiopian Hymnologist, St. Yared
has praised this event with the verse, "The Wooden Cross which
was buried at Golgotha by the Jews is found today." (Yared's
Hymn Book of Helena.)
Many of the rites observed throughout the festival are directly connected
to the actions of Empress Helena. On the eve of Meskel tall branches
are tied together and yellow daisies, popularly called meskel flowers,
are placed at the top. During the night these branches are gathered
together in front of the compound gates and ignited. This symbolizes
the actions of the Empress whom, when no one would show her the Holy
Sepulcher, lit incense and prayed for help. Where the smoke drifted
she dug and found three crosses. To one of them, the True Cross, many
miracles were attributed.
This event is also celebrated everywhere in the Christian world. But
in Ethiopia, it is celebrated with great spiritual feeling and traditional
sentiments. The Meskel Holiday falls during the beginning of the Ethiopian
Spring and this makes it very colorful. On Meskerem 16 (September
26th) in the cities villages and the surrounding areas, people bring
torches of twigs called "Chibo" and wood to Meskel Square"
to form the Demera (bundles of branches of wood and twigs). The priests
perform prayers in front of the demera and sing, "Meskel has
illuminated, and it decorated the sky with stars and showed everything
like the sun!" saying this, they circle the Demera followed by
huge procession which circles it singing "Iyoha Abebaye Meskerem
Tebaye" (Behold, Meskerem has dawned and the flowers have blossomed.)
The choirs circle the demera and fling their torches upon it, while
singing a special Meskel song. People at home also light "Chibos"
and make merry. The next morning, Meskerem 17 (September 27), the
Demera is lit, and since prayers have been said over the Demera, people
make a sign of the cross on their forehead with the ashes and spray
it over their cattle. Since Helena started digging on Meskerem 17
(September 27) and found the cross on Megabit 10 (March 19), these
holidays are observed as the same holiday.
Meskel also signifies the physical presence of the True Cross at the
remote mountain monastery of Gishen Mariam located in the Wello, northern
Ethiopia, region. In this monastery is a massive volume called the
Tefut, written during the reign of Zera Yacob (1434-1468), which records
the story of how a fragment of the Cross was acquired.
In the middle Ages, it relates, the Christian monarchs of Ethiopia
were called upon to protect the Coptic minorities and wage punitive
war against their persecutors. Their reward was usually gold, but
instead the Emperor Dawit asked for a fragment of the True Cross from
the Patriarch of Alexandria. He received it at Meskel.