I’ve just come back from Ethiopia, where a group of us who are students at Bangor Theological Seminary went to visit ancient churches and monasteries. Along the way, I found myself caught up not so much by the ancient art and architecture, but by the living faith of a people so poor, I can only compare them to the Indians portrayed in the recent movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” Yes, it’s that bad.
And yet … And yet, the faith of this predominantly Christian nation is powerfully moving. We were there during Timkat, the most sacred time of the year. It’s a festival during which the faithful parade their churches’ replicas of the Holy of Holies through the streets of the towns, while they sing and pray and dance.
What is their Holy of Holies? It’s nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant — a box, the Bible tells us, which contains the power of God. Ethiopians believe a story told in a 13th century text, the Kebra Nagast, that the Ark of the Covenant came to Ethiopia approximately 3,000 years ago, when Prince Menelik — son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — brought it from Jerusalem.
Today, the Ethiopians claim, it resides in a special building in the ancient city of Axum, where only one caretaker has access to the sacred box — a box of acacia wood, layered in gold, which contains the sacred tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments.
In many ways, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church represents Christianity the way it was meant to be. Ethiopians see themselves as the heirs of Judaism, with bloodlines back to Solomon, and with God’s blessing of the ark, the “Mercy Seat” where Moses encountered God.
The ark was the main reason for building Solomon’s Temple, but if the Ethiopian story is true, the ark was carried away about 400 years before the temple’s destruction in 587 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers swept out of Babylon to conquer Jerusalem.
Jews, on the other hand, would look to Second Maccabees, Chapter 2, which reports that the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave on Mount Nebo, to keep it from Nebuchadnezzar. Second Maccabees quotes Jeremiah as saying, “The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them his mercy. Then the Lord will bring these things once more to light.” Nevertheless, from that date forward, the question has been asked again and again — where is the Ark of the Covenant?
If what the Ethiopians believe is true, God’s blessing moved to Ethiopia, and the ark has been protected and preserved by them ever since. Moreover, Ethiopian legend tells of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus coming to Axum during their escape to Egypt, when Herod was attempting to murder the holy child.
Unlike the Western church, where Christians separated themselves from their Jewish roots, Ethiopians saw Jesus as the Messiah intended to fulfill Torah prophecy. Their orthodoxy blends Jewish and Christian traditions into one continuous faith, which is something we failed to achieve in Jerusalem and the West.
The consequences of that failure were enormous, especially since the Koran suggests Muhammad was influenced by the contradictions of Christians and Jews; he thought it necessary to found a third faith, based upon his own take on Hebrew scripture. The divisions, the killings, and the ongoing struggles between these three scripturally related faiths might have been avoided had the Judeo-Christian faith evolved throughout the world as it did in Ethiopia.
There are also stories that the mysterious Knights Templar, who occupied the Temple Mount and excavated areas in search of the lost ark, then may have traveled to Ethiopia to try to get their hands on it. And while they were there, the Templars may have had a hand in constructing the famous stone churches of Lalibela — churches, chiseled out of solid rock, that could well qualify as the Eighth Wonder of the World. On flat ledges of solid rock, the builders first carved out a 50-foot-deep trench around a block of solid stone. Then they carved a doorway, and proceeded to chisel out the entire interior of each spacious church, with walls, roof and decorated columns all sculpted from the solid stone. Amazing.
And speaking of the Templars, Ethiopian faith gets right what recent theories about the grail legend and Mary Magdalene got wrong. I’ve written before about the confusion caused by Dan Brown’s muddled novel, “The da Vinci Code,” in which he claims the Magdalene’s womb was the Holy Grail. The “grail” was not a cup, not a womb, but a stone. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant, containing the sacred stones, was the gral (stone) the Templars sought. There is power in the ark and its contents, and that’s what the Templars were after.
Incidentally, since the Middle Ages, Jesus’ mother, Mary, has been the one likened to the ark. For like the ark, Mary carried the fire of God within her, and was not consumed by it.
For anyone who’d like to learn more about the Ark of the Covenant, and Ethiopia’s claim to its ownership, I would recommend Graham Hancock’s well-researched speculations in his book, “The Sign and the Seal.” It reads like a detective story, as Hancock describes being drawn into the ancient legends, and evidence, concerning the Queen of Sheba, the Templars, the Ark of the Covenant and the other sacred mysteries of Ethiopia.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.