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Passion Week

Ethiopian Orthodox faithful would end a 55-day vegetarian fast on Sunday. This week is Semoune Hemamat or Passion Week, which is being celebrated starting from the eve of Palm Sunday (Hosanna).

The Belgian scholar, Christine Chaillot in her seminal book, “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Tradition” (Paris, 2002) explains how the celebration goes throughout the week. Here is the first part of the extract.

Holy Week begins on the eve of Palm Sunday and is known as Passion Week (Semoune Hemamat).Its readings and order are described in a book (Gebre Hemamat). 


During Passion Week all the Psalms and certain prayers (Weddase Maryam, Melke’a Maryam, Melke’a Iyesus) are recited throughout the day, distributed in the church by a student or a debtera or a priest.

On Holy Thursday (Tselote Hamus) the washing of the feet ceremony begins at about midday. In front of the sanctuary (maqdas), on a table, leaves, mostly of grape (weyra), are prepared and two separate bowls, into which water is poured from a jug.

After appropriate readings, the bishop/priest and deacons circle the table. The water is blessed with a Cross by the bishop or priest. It is mostly the priests and deacons who come and sit on the twelve chairs (symbols of the twelve Apostles) prepared in two lines on each side of the table. The bishop/ or priest puts a long white cotton towel (mekfe) around his waist and washes their feet and drys them with the end of it (John 13:4-6), and then all the faithful follow. Hands will be washed in the second recipient. The Liturgy commemorating the Eucharist Institution will follow.

At home special food (gulban) is prepared, made of peeled beans (bakela) mixed with wheat and boiled together, which is distributed on Holy Thursday, (people say as a symbol of the Old Testament Passover,) and on Friday. 

On Holy Friday, people fast all day, without taking any food or drink, some do the same also the next day (akfelot).

The curtains of the sanctuary and altar should be black.

From 6 a.m., the faithful will be in church praying all day: the Hours, the reading of the Old Testament prophecies, and of the Four Gospels about the events of the day (from the arrest of Christ until His Crucifixion), and texts from some of the Churches’ Fathers Commentaries, and of the Miracles of Mary.

Many prostrations are made all day long, for example, at the beginning and at the end of each Hour. For prostrations: first the faithful either put their two hands up behind the shoulders, or their arms crossed on the chest; then ether they touch their knees with their hands, or they beat their chest; finally they prostrate the whole body (knees and foreheads) to the ground.

 A deacon will announce the beginning of every Hour by going around the church ringing a little bell.

At the 3rd Hour a table is placed in front of the sanctuary (with closed curtains), and on it a picture of the Crucifixion, as well as roses or flowers and the Gospel Book, and lit candles, and around them the liturgical vessels, to signify that there is no Liturgy on that day. To the right and left of the table on the ground are two processional Crosses. A kind of representation of the ‘body of Christ” is found laying in front of the sanctuary. In front of the picture a string is strung from wall to wall to hang a censer.

From the 3rd to the 9th Hour, (at every hour), the censer will be agitated three times before the Gospel readings, by three different priests in turn, as symbol of Jesus being pulled and pushed by the Jews; the noise can bee seen as crying and lamentation of Christ, and the smoke as symbol of death.

At the 3rd Hour, Psalm 35 is recited, interrupted three times by the priest who repeats the two first lines (Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive after me…), while the faithful prostrate until the end. And the deacon will chant Psalm 22:16-17 on a mournful tone, repeated by the people (The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet…)

At the 6th Hour (the Hour of the Crucifixion), before the Gospel readings, the priest sings:

“We prostrate in front of Your Cross, O Master, and all of us, we glorify Your holy Resurrection, now and forever).and the deacon chants Psalm 22:17-18, which is repeated by the people.

At the 6th hour, before the Gospel reading, three priests sit down in front of the picture of Crucifixion (as if in front of the Cross itself); a large black cloth is put on their heads (symbolizing people coming to mourn in front of the Cross), and they say three times: «Amnestiti moukyria enti fassilia sou» (distortion of Greek «mnestiti mou kyrie en ti vassilai sou»), «Lord remember me in your Kingdom».

This is repeated by the people, who prostrate.img_5204 


At the 9th Hour (the Hour of Christ’s death), (while pulling at the censer) the three priests sing in turn: «He tasted death in His Flesh», three times and faithful will repeat it and prostrate.

At the 11th Hour, all the objects and Crosses (in front of the sanctuary) will be taken away, and the clergy will carry the picture of the Crucifixion or the representation of Christ’s ‘body’ into the sanctuary, and pray: «Christ have mercy upon us», 400 times (a hundred times each toward the four cardinal points); and the people will respond: «Christ have mercy upon us» («Egzio maharane Krestos»; this prayer is therefore called egziota.

Then, at the place where debteras stand, another ritual unique to the Ethiopian tradition takes place: the cursing of Judas and his generation. Several debteras form a circle, with one debtera standing in the middle holding a stick (maqwamia) with a candle (twaf) at its tip, which is a symbol of the devil and Judas. At the end of the last verse of Psalm I, when «But the way of the ungodly will perish » is said, all the debteras strike the stick in the middle to extinguish the light of its twaf , and ‘destroy’ it, as through Christ’s death the Devil has lost his power and Judas is cursed and destroyed because of his betrayal.

Immediately after, the debteras move in the mahelet, with sistra and beating of sticks and drums used for the first time since Palm Sunday, and all sing: «Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously» (Ex.15:21)

After that faithful will come to the priest who will give them (gentle) strokes (tibtaba) on their back, with  olive branches, to commemorate the Flagellation of Christ, and as an absolution. At the same time, as confession is due on that day, the faithful will rapidly confess their sins to the priest.

(Both pictures were taken at Debre Yibabe St. Yared Church this morning)

Categories: City Journal
  1. Temsgen
    April 15, 2009 at 9:34 am

    The idea that one person died so that others could live is the most beautiful and uplifing part of Chrisitanity.

  2. Juru
    April 15, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for the post. Never knew the story behind the “passion week”. Happy Easter!

  3. mn
    April 15, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    It is strange that your source for your own faith is a Belgian and not a local church scholar.

  4. sol
    April 15, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Here is a link I found on Lent from your site. http://ethiopianchurchdotorg.blogspot.com/2009/03/lent-as-way-of-life.html

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