Monday, April 25, 2011

How Blessed Is This Day

It's the night before Easter in Addis Ababa.  The walk to the Holy Trinity Cathedral for Midnight Mass is not one I would want to do alone.  During the day, the streets of Addis are teeming with all sorts of sweet, savory and unsavory (often it seems mostly unsavory) characters, but at night they are empty, and the dusty, unlit roads radiate a sense of desolateness that is eerie.  There are no neon signs, no pedestrian promenades, no commercial centers, no rows of restaurants or stores, no tall modern buildings to light up the sky.  Addis has none of these.

The gate to the church is guarded by a mass of humanity.  In the shadows of night they have no faces, no arms, no legs.  They are a huddled stack of blankets, wrapped up to guard against the surprisingly chilly night they will spend on the street, as they always do.  As we walk through a hand reaches out and shakes slowly, inquiring for alms in the international language of jingling change.

We enter the church grounds, following the sound of the distorted voice chanting in Amharic, booming across the city from the top of the church spire.  We round the corner, and there they are.

There are hundreds, no thousands, each and every one wrapped in a long white shawl.  Some hold long wooden staffs, some burning candles.  They are old and young, some obviously wealthier than others.  I assume they fill the entire inside of the church, but I can't confirm.  I can barely get near the door.  They spill out onto the steps of the church, onto the platform below, around all sides of the church, filling the church grounds.  They sit on blankets like it was a rock concert.  They lean against statues and trees, they sit between cars.  Some are standing, some are sleeping.  All are perfectly quiet.

The priest's chanting slows to a beautifully gentle speaking voice.  Every twenty to thirty seconds it pauses and the worshippers chime in with an equally soft melodic murmur.  They stand up and prostrate.  At one point they applaud wildly.  It goes on and on into Easter sunday.

I am new to Ethiopia, but there is something in the service that feels unique and uniquely Ethiopian.  It is definitely Christian and definitely African, and yet the dress and the melody and the setting lends a Semitic feel to it.  I wonder where else in the world can it be like this.  Somalia?  Sudan?

At some point there is a massacre.  I don't know when or how, but when I wake up on the morning of Easter Sunday the street corners are stacked high with goat hides and it is not so uncommon to see someone walking the street with a bag of meat or a severed goat head.  The fifty-five day vegetarian fast has ended, and they are celebrating the return to the eating of flesh.

This day is a quiet day on the streets of Addis.  Nothing is open, no stores or banks or internet cafes (the few that exist), only the ubiquitous coffee shops, selling what is regarded as some of the world's best java.  The minivans with the howling conductors come by only every few minutes rather than every twenty or so seconds.  It even seems there are somehow fewer homeless on the streets, as if they too are taking the day off.

I like Addis this way.  Tomorrow it will go back to the roads crowded with people and old vehicles spewing black smoke, the pickpockets, the disabled and dirty asking for change, the prostitutes with their supposed fifty percent HIV infection rate, the homeless and filthy children, the near post-apocalyptic reality that can be the day-to-day street scene.  This is how Addis is, at least as it seems to me, in my very brief encounter.  It is something I will always remember, something I could never forget, even if I tried.

But of course, even on the normal days, there is more to it than that. They are here somewhere, those devotees, behind closed doors, that quiet amidst the madness.  I will remember them too.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written post, Noah. I can only imagine how intense this must have been. What an experience...