St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church: Timkat, Epiphany

by Tim Gilmore, 1/18/2019

Last year Solomon Siyoum invited all of Jacksonville to celebrate Timkat at Debre Bernan Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church downtown. Today, all four of Jacksonville’s Eritrean and Ethiopian churches come together to celebrate Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan, his destruction of Satan’s letters of possession of humans as slaves, and the reunion of Eritreans and Ethiopians here at St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church, on the city’s industrial and rural Westside. Each year, the four churches rotate the site of the celebration.

As the morning nears noon, the crowd swells, most everyone dressed in the light cotton white garments called shammas that seem to cloak today’s celebrants in luminescent clouds. Congregants gather underneath tall longleaf pines either side of the priests addressing them. Behind the priests, in the wide tent draped in the green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag, waits each church’s Tabot.

The Tabot is the model of the Ark of the Convenant, originally built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, enshrined, according to Ethiopian Orthodoxy, one of the oldest forms of Christianity, at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, the ancient city founded perhaps 3,000 years ago and later the center of the Aksumite Empire.

The New Testament Book of Hebrews describes the Ark as “overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant.” Manna was the bread from Heaven that sustained the Israelites’ migration from slavery in Egypt in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus. The rod of Aaron, brother of Moses, fulfilled the prophecy that though each of the 12 tribes of Israel represent themselves with a staff, only the rod of the tribe chosen to be priests would produce buds and bloom. The “tables of the covenant” are the two stone tablets into which God carved the Ten Commandments.

I stand listening to a chorus of children singing before the tent of the Tabot, when Solomon Siyoum greets me lovingly, his smile as kind and warm as his handshake, as his left hand on my upper arm. When Solomon lived in Atlanta, 16 Ethiopian and Eritrean churches came together for Timkat, the Ethiopian Epiphany, with a joint membership as high as 25,000. Here in Jacksonville, four churches, a membership of more than 2,000, bring hundreds out this Saturday morning, January 19th.

Eritrea and Ethiopia never split in their faith, though the 30 year war between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean separatists resulted in Eritrean statehood in 1991. “We have always been together in the spirit,” Solomon says.

St. Gabriel’s occupies the campus of the former Inman Memorial United Methodist Church. Children sit in circles on the covered porch of the modest original sanctuary, built in the 1930s, whitewashed and wooden, above the porch an attic fan nearly the size of the windows either side of the door. The steeple from the newer building (early 1950s), stands from the central tower above the smells of chicken and berbere sauce, which comprises more than a dozen spices.

A giant hand drum sways a slender reed of a woman, a golden cross above the cross of her face. The flowing white, gold and blue garments of seated holymen recall the Magi of the story of Jesus’s birth. After all, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” from perhaps ancient Africa, the Mediterranean Coast, and present-day Yemen, that 1857 Christmas hymn only slightly closer to the Christian source than Joel O’Steen. (See, if you don’t get it, Matthew 21:12-13.)

At first I hang back. This corner of America belongs to Ethiopian Christians. I deeply respect them, their authenticity, love, their sense of community. Then Solomon tells me I can go where I want, that I will not, cannot, be in the way.

Everywhere I go, men and women smile at me, nod greetings, children stare, wearing their red, ochre and golden veils and dresses and suits, their index fingers perched contemplatively in their mouths, their eyes imbibing their early minds’ impressions. Fathers seat their toddlers on their laps, carry them sleeping in their arms, kiss their delicate faces.

These are strangers who know that strangers are friends. They’re not naïve. They’re not ignorant of centuries of European and American colonialism. (See, if you don’t get it, Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”.) They meet me, person to person, as every two people in the midst of billions should, with kindness and respect, presuming the best of my humanity as I do theirs.

Music thrums and rings through the great tall trees. Drummers whirl ’round in circles, float briefly off the ground, smile all genuine joy, and look into the eyes of everyone present.

My American-ness makes me, too often, uncomfortable with human contact, and so interprets each such human connection as private touch, bordering the inappropriate, but here I, the only white face in hundreds, feel a connectedness without awkwardness, without strange(r)ness, without isolation. Why do most connections I seek isolate me? What do these strangers know of home that makes me feel so at-home with them?

I translate the music, not the sermon. I mark the repetitions made in a language I don’t know, in rising tempo and decrescendo. Everyone here speaks Amharic, the Semitic language most spoken after Arabic, Jesus having spoken Semitic Aramaic. I watch this sermon’s climax climb, hearing, “Ethiopia, Eritrea, Africa, America, Atlanta, Orlando, Jacksonville!” The steps climb, the people clap, the children chant, the drummers dance.

People ask me to take their picture, a group of teenage boys, a pair of young girls, kind faces, no one pushing me away. The crowd grows, the congregation swells, the chorus gains voices. What I can’t help but most love is The Ililta. I even love the name of it.

The Ililta raises the voice above choral verses and chants. It’s a high-pitched ululation. Other Africans, the Zulu, the Huasa, the Luo, sound their own versions of Ililta. Across the continent, Africans use ululations as greetings, love songs and mourning cries. Swahili women sound lililili in religious ceremonies, while young girls imitate the ululations of their mothers and their aunts.

In the repetitions of drumming, the choruses of children, The Ililta of older women cloaked in clouds across from the tabernacle of the Tabot, the wide sway of ivory and golden garments as drummers whirl in circles, I hear a sound my soul has always needed to make, but to which I have come too late.

Solomon points out that “Timkat” translates as baptism. I sit up front, white-clad worshippers about me, and watch the Water Ceremony, dancers’ robes flying, drummers whirling. This annual reflection keeps alive John’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. My own childhood baptisms marked trauma. I’m here for the resurrection.

Timkat celebrates that most dramatic aspect of the Resurrection, other than resurrection itself. When Satan tricked Adam and Eve in Eden, he wrote a letter of possession, signed by Satan with human sin, committing human beings to enslavement. For safe keeping, he deposited one copy of the letter in the River Jordan, which flows from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee, through today’s Israel, Jordan and Syria, and the other copy he took down to Hell. In the three days from Crucifixion to Resurrection, Jesus Christ, Son of God, went to Hell, revoked the satanic deed, destroyed it, rose from the dead, and reclaimed the world.

Timkat regards the ancient resurrection from death to new life, whether Christ’s salvation or the ever-non-changing model of winter to spring, world into earth, compost become nutrition. Even so, this January day grows warmer. Gold glooms of pollen cast through the rays of singing and drumming and Ililta. It’s soon come time to plant.

Ethiopian “Christmas,” presumed the time of the Savior’s birth built on old models of vegetal death and resurrection, comes just two weeks before Timkat, Ethiopian Epiphany, the sudden appearance of Jesus to the Magi, the resultant manifestation of supernatural Jesus upon and through all workings of the physical.

Even without the metaphysics and metaphor, today is a day of children smiling, a hundred variations of red and gold crosses on white dresses. Baptism is resurrection. Spiderwort, beggarweed and dog fennel perform it every springtime across the peninsula.

Nearby, old wooden Baptist and Methodist churches fall softly and slowly toward, then into, this swamp and ancient sump alongside Little Sixmile Creek. A wooden church shanty, just a century old, leans down and cleaves to wet earth. Capitulates. The sign still reads, “Flaming Fire Deliverance Ministries, Inc.” It’s nailed to the wall at ground-level beside the boarded door. Old dirt lots, where similar fire-breathing small congregations once worshiped, find their long-ago hymns infiltrated by the whispers of the longleaf pines that pre-date them by time before time.

These streets, Old Kings Road at Beaver Street and Lane Avenue, the old road named for the English territorial pathways laid across older Timucuan Indian footpaths, now reeking of Southern Gothic, find, pungent and floral in their lonely Petri Dish, compost tea and undertow, an apex to which they’d not considered ascending. The Ililta carries through the wuthering of wind in the heights of the oldest pines.

What most ancient center of most populous world religions is, yes, through its part in the story, Jacksonville, Florida? The center of the world is Jerusalem, the center of the world is Rome. The city of the world is Benares / Varanasi, is Tenochtitlan, is Byblos, is Kyoto. The center of the world is every point considered on the world in its circumference. For Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the central church in Axum, where the Ark of the Convenant abides, gives voice and place to every satellite church, and for every church the Tabot, replica of the central church’s central possession. And so, right here.

That’s the point of today: the procession: as the central church in Axum guards the ark, so every church satellite brings forth its representation. Orthodoxy, worldwide, exists as holograph, as crystal, the entirety whole in each of its parts. Every satellite of the mother church is the center.

The crowd comes together as one being, claps in unison, a bell chimes repetitively, silk umbrellas pass overhead, Ililta coordinates the body in unison, up and throughout and over them, priests’ exhortations in ancient language cuts through the lililili, the urgency of the spiritual enacts itself through earth. Each church brings out and brings forth its central charge, the Tabot, the ark housing its covenant with God, then walks it through the people.

A cedar grows multiform skyward outside the newer old brick sanctuary. Many trunks rise together to the zenith of the cedar. Like a proverb. A pickup truck, with multiple Confederate flag bumper stickers, rides Walser Road, young white men inside wearing camouflage baseball caps, slamming bass, rap lyrics dissing women. Rednecks too often love Crunk and gangbanger rap. Like a proverb. Like a proverb, this young woman smiles, a sleeping baby in her arms.

There’s a trust here that I’m just not used to. People smile at me. I’m struck dumb by this sharp-dressed child, this little boy, in long white sleeves, yellow linen pants and vest. Would that I could replace my native-born suspicion with his sweet and earnest smile. I feel, and I might be wrong, that I once knew what it meant without knowing, to look up from and occupy just such a face and expression.

Timkat is baptism, is resurrection. The oldest city is only millennia old. People are older, but in the scheme of things, only a little. The mystery is older than everything else. It’s what makes the fact that we die okay, since no other species has that self-knowledge. The kindness of strangers saves us. The smiles on children’s faces means that life loves its babies, bestows beauty in community, forgets and foregoes self in the unity of laughter and dance and song.