Food for Thought from Ethiopia

The majority of Western evangelical Christians rarely, if ever, fast as a form of spiritual discipline. In our culture, fasting is more connected with dieting than worship, the other side of our deeply ambiguous fascination with food. Food is everywhere. We eat more than ever before, at greater speed, and spend increasing amounts of money on it. Yet we also spend billions dealing with the problems of overconsumption. Nevertheless, while dieting is common in our culture, fasting as an act of worship is something of a foreign concept.

When Western Christians reflect on Lenten practice, and liturgy in general, there are several important questions that we ask: is it something taught in the scriptures, is it something the church has traditionally done, and (for the disciples of Hooker out there) is it reasonable? As a result, our reflections are significantly shaped by our attention to time. We explore the cultural horizons of the first century, the various horizons of church history, and how they relate to our own culture in the twenty-first century. Consequently we often tend to look to the past – our past. The danger with this approach is that we don’t give enough attention to space. We often ignore the many and varied cultural horizons of the church in the present, not to mention the rich heritage to be found in some of these traditions.

As Andrew Walls has shown, Scripture teaches that the church has both temporal and spatial dimensions (Walls 2004, 72-81). The epistle to the Hebrews highlights the cross-generational nature of the church. The Old Testament heroes of faith “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV).

The book of Ephesians, addressing the remarkable growth of Christianity among the Gentiles in the ancient Mediterranean, emphasizes the cross-cultural nature of the church. The metaphor of building a temple in Ephesians 2 and the beautiful trinitarian expression that accompanies it imply the construction of a unity of human diversity in Christ, a house for God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 4 the metaphor dramatically shifts to the building up of a body, which is to grow “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 ESV). The whole company of faith, spread out through time and space – terrible as an army with banners – is part of a single story awaiting its summation in Christ.

If the church has both temporal and spatial dimensions, we can’t only look to our own heritage. If we truly desire to grow in our knowledge of Christ and unity of faith, we need to engage with Christians from other cultures, both locally and around the globe. The incredible growth of Christianity in the global south is a rich blessing for the church of the twenty-first century. We need each other’s perspective to correct, teach, and train our own.

In the past there have been huge obstacles to cross-cultural Christian engagement, primarily vast expanses of land and sea. Today the world is smaller, but a number of barriers remain. Linguistic and cultural differences continue in the face of globalization. Unfortunately, ethnic divisions run deep. Although people from different parts of the globe are more connected than ever, the world seems to be more tribal rather than less.

Nevertheless, in spite of these obstacles there are a number of ways that Christians can engage with their brothers and sisters from around the globe. The internet is a great resource for information about Christians from other countries. Nowadays, for example, you don’t have to go to a university library to be able to learn about the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) – they have an official website (see here). Furthermore, movements of people from the global south to the north mean that there are often Christians from very different cultural backgrounds living in our neighbourhoods. These communities are easy to miss, but one way they become visible is through their food. An Ethiopian restaurant, for example, is a pretty good sign that there is a community of Ethiopians in the area (for a handy guide to Ethiopian Restaurants across the U.S., see here; for a good Ethiopian restaurant in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, see here).

Ethiopian Christians have a rich heritage when it comes to Lenten practice. Ethiopian Christianity has very ancient roots. The earliest account of an Ethiopian convert is, of course, the well-known story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. We have no way of knowing what happened to him or how his people received the good news that he brought back from his pilgrimage, but a seed was planted and began to grow.

In the early 300s, a new chapter began when Frumentius and his brother Aedesius, two young Syrian Christians, were shipwrecked off the coast of Eritrea. Their work led to the conversion of Ezana, the king of Aksum, and the introduction of Christianity as the state religion. From that point on, apart from a brief and tragic Roman Catholic interlude, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has continued to develop the distinctive liturgies that it has today.

The traditional teaching of the EOTC on fasting can be found in the Fetha Nagast, a legal code which was introduced in the fifteenth century and has been very influential in Ethiopian society and culture:

“Fasting is abstinence from food, and is observed by man at certain times determined by law, to attain forgiveness of sins and much reward, obeying thus the one who fixed the law. Fasting [also] serves to weaken the force of concupiscence so that [the body] may obey the rational soul. All the faithful are obliged to observe the fast of forty days as did Christ—may He be praised!—the fast which comes to an end on the Friday of Fesh, and after it [the fast of] the week of Crucifixion. These fasts shall be observed until the end of the day, and during that time no blooded animal nor what is produced by animals shall be eaten. And also on the fasts of Wednesday and Friday of every week [shall be observed], except during the fifty days, and during the feasts of Christmas and baptism, when these feasts fall on those days. On fast days one must fast until the ninth hour, as it is written” (Tzadua 1968, chap. 15).

According to the EOTC website, there are seven official periods of fasting, giving a total of about 250 days of fasting in a year. Nevertheless, two of these fasts – the fast of the apostles and the fast of the prophets – are only for clergy, leaving about 180 days of fasting for dedicated Christians (Sellassie and Mikael 1970).

So, what can we learn from Ethiopian Christians about Lenten practice? Here are three brief suggestions. First, fasting is abstinence from food, especially meat and animal products. That may seem rather obvious, but Western Christians have a tendency to spiritualize fasting. We don’t give up our daily bread; we give up very specific treats like chocolate, haribo, or coffee. Or we give up things like Facebook, gaming, or watching the news. While “fasting” from these things can certainly be good for us, we can miss out on the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food.

Second, fasting has a communal dimension. The Western focus on the individual often obscures this dimension. We may begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday, but we fast in ones and twos, and we seldom end Lent by breaking our fast with a feast. In the Ethiopian tradition, Christ’s life sets a pattern for the church to follow. If Christ fasted, then fasting is an important spiritual discipline as we seek to be conformed to His likeness. Furthermore, clergy are to take the lead when it comes to fasting, as is clear from the fast of the apostles and the fast of the prophets.

Third, fasting shapes culture. Apart from the lingering tradition of having pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, Lenten practice seems to have little impact on Western culture. We have the highest levels of meat consumption in the world and, if trends continue, that is set to rise dramatically in the coming years. What we eat also affects our stewardship of God’s creation. Apart from the accompanying health problems, overconsumption also impacts the environment. Whatever your position on global warming or climate change, large areas of land and vast amounts of resources are devoted to producing meat to fill our bellies.

In contrast, the observance of Lent has had a real impact on Ethiopian culture. Ethiopian food is Lenten cuisine. Centuries of Christian liturgy have created a rich variety of vegetarian fasting dishes that simply can’t be explained apart from Lenten practice. Fasting on a regular basis may seem a small step, but Ethiopian cuisine gives us a glimpse of where small steps can lead.

Sellassie, Sergew Hable and Belaynesh Mikael. 1970. “Worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Faith and Order, last modified 2003, accessed 10 March, 2016. http://www.ethiopianorthodox.org/english/ethiopian/worship.html. Originally published in Sergew Hable Sellassie, ed. The Church of Ethiopia: A Panorama of History and Spiritual Life. Addis Ababa: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Tzadua, Paulos, trans. 1968. The Fetha Nagast: The Law of the Kings. Edited by Peter L. Strauss. Addis Ababa: The Faculty of Law, Haile Sellassie I University. Accessed 10 March, 2016. http://www.ethiopianorthodox.org/biography/01thelawofkings.pdf.

Walls, Andrew F. 2004. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Originally published at the Theopolis website. Republished here with minor formatting alterations.

The Shepherds in Ethiopian Art

While doing research on Ethiopian Hermeneutics for an encyclopaedia article on African Biblical Hermeneutics, I came across a number of websites with valuable primary and secondary resources. Recent interest in the digital preservation of Ethiopian manuscripts has led to copies of paintings that were previously inaccessible being made publicly available for the first time. These depictions of the Nativity are part of an illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels that was created at Dabra Hayg Estifanos monastery in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. What is fascinating about the paintings is the way they draw on Byzantine models and transform them into an Ethiopian idiom. The portrayal of the shepherds is of particular interest in this regard.

The Annunciation to the Shepherd and the Christ Child’s First Bath
“Illuminated Gospel [late 14th–early 15th century],” The Met, accessed 31 January, 2021, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/317618.
The Nativity
“Illuminated Gospel [late 14th–early 15th century],” The Met, accessed 31 January, 2021, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/317618.

Fortunately, there are useful secondary resources available to help interpret these paintings. Issues of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies from 1963 to 2016 are now freely accessible by subscription from JSTOR. Prof. Stanislaw Chojnacki, who co-directed the journal from 1963 to 1975 and has published extensively on Ethiopian art, has also written an article on the subject of the Nativity. As he observes in his analysis of several Gospels, “the announcement to the shepherds by the angels, and their subsequent homage paid to the Child born in Bethlehem, have been represented either together or singly. In the post-iconoclastic Byzantine schema the announcement by the angels was generally shown, the angels appearing behind the top of the rock to the shepherds, who were placed below, on the right of the composition” (Chojnacki 1974, 19).

The illustrators of the Dabra Hayg Estifanos Gospels have chosen to represent the announcement to the shepherds and the shepherds’ journey to or arrival at Bethlehem separately. In the former, they follow the Byzantine model in terms of placement, but portray the shepherd quite realistically. He is well-wrapped, wearing a coat and a hat. His right hand is raised in surprise. His crossed legs and the pipe in his left hand suggest that the angel has just interrupted a musical reverie. In the latter, three shepherds are depicted, accompanied by three sheep. The shepherds are bare-headed and wear a kind of skirt. They are shown with their legs stretched wide, striding along at a fast pace. Each has his right hand raised in a greeting and holds a curved stick in his left hand.

As Chojnacki suggests, “In Ethiopia, largely composed of a pastoral society, the subject of the shepherds no doubt struck the imagination of the painters. This is possibly the reason why it occupies such a prominent place in the composition, the shepherds’ figures having the same size of main personages. Also the shepherds seem to be portrayed from life and wear local dress, while other figures seem rather to reflect foreign influence. In the Hayq Nativity the shepherds wear short decorative skirts, are barefoot and hold curved sticks. In the Zir-Ganela Nativity the very crude execution does not allow clear observation of particulars of the dress; nevertheless the shepherds have the same curved sticks as in the Hayq Nativity, and additionally perhaps an intriguing head-decoration. It is however possible that the “head-decoration” represents the way of drawing hair, as in Däbrä Mar Gospels in which several figures have their hair drawn in “Afro” style. The same realistic approach is obvious in the Faras Nativity: two shepherds stand with one of their legs crossed, supporting themselves on a long stick, a position of relaxation still used by Nilotic pastoralists” (Chojnacki 1974, 21).

Later paintings go even further, portraying the shepherds as playing “a kind of lawn hockey.” As Chojnacki explains, “Gänna is a popular game traditionally played in Ethiopia at Christmas-time and therefore called by the same word as Christmas, gänna.” (Chojnacki 1974, 40-41). How this folklore addition came to be taken up in Ethiopian depictions of the shepherds is unclear, but he suggests that “in the basically pastoral society, in which most young people were engaged in watching cattle, since practically every male was a shepherd in the early stages of his life, the narrative of the Gospels indicating that the shepherds were the first to be informed about the birth of the Saviour must have had a special appeal.” (Chojnacki 1974, 41). According to Chojnacki, “One of the justifications still repeated by traditional scholars is the belief that the shepherds were indeed playing gänna at the very moment when the angel appeared to them” (Chojnacki 1974, 41-42).

Chojnacki’s interpretation is compelling and offers an interesting perspective on the inculturation or contextualisation of the Gospel in Africa. Much discussion has focused on the portrayal of Jesus. (Is it justified to portray Jesus as an African? What aspects of the Gospel message better communicated by doing so? What aspects are less well-communicated?) But the people who hear about Jesus and come to him are also important because they represent us and our response. In Ethiopian portrayals of the Nativity, the shepherds run to see the saviour. Do we?

Chojnacki, Stanislaw. 1974. “The Nativity in Ethiopian Art.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 12, no. 2 (July): 11-56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41965866.