Monday night Ruth and I joined with our Ethiopian Orthodox friends in Washington D.C. to celebrate Christmas (January 7th in the Julian calendar). The service began at 6 PM Christmas eve and lasted until 3 AM on Tuesday morning the 7th. We did not understand the Amharic language but we understood the joy and devotion of these 2,000 to 3,000 people, old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, who spent the night in worship ceremonies that have been relatively unchanged over the past 1500 years.

Each person was dressed in a white shawl (Netela), covering the heads for the women and draping the shoulders for the men. Men and women sat separately, men on the left and women on the right facing the altar. Everyone was given a rope candle and at one point In the service, the crowd moved in joyful procession around the sanctuary. A choir sang and danced. Priests and deacons led in chanted prayers and hymns and recitation of scripture and in processions. The priests filled the air with incense.

To the initiated, every movement and expression had great significance. At one point I was given a long rod. Was it a prayer rod? Or did they think I was old and needed something to lean on during the long hours of standing?

I strove to understand but as the time wore on, I realized that in spite of being in the company of worshippers for the better part of a night, “I was seeing but not perceiving; I was hearing but not understanding. “

Then I recalled the experience of Philip (Acts 8:26-40) in which an Ethiopian leader asked Philip to explain the Scripture to him.

In a reversal of this passage I found myself going to Ethiopians and saying, “How shall I understand unless someone explains it to me?”

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