Liturgical Worship 

Part Three 

Unique Features of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Priest Habtamu Teshome

January 16, 2023

In Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Liturgical language has a long history in Ethiopia going back to the time of the translation of the bible in to the Geez language in the fifth century. The main unique features are: –

1) Geez:- In Classical Ethiopic, it is one of the first seven languages of the world in which the bible was translated. The divine services of the Ethiopian Church are celebrated in the Ge’ez language inside and outside the country, Ethiopia, which has been the language of the Church at least since the arrival of the Nine Saints (Abba Pantelewon, Abba Gerima (Isaac, or Yeshaq), Abba Aftse, Abba Guba, Abba Alef, Abba Yem‟ata, Abba Liqanos, and Abba Sehma), who fled persecution by the Byzantine Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon (451) still now. The Septuagint Greek version was originally translated into Ge’ez, but later revisions show clear evidence of the use of Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic sources.

2) Ark of the Covenant

Throughout Ethiopia, Orthodox churches are not considered churches until the local bishop gives them an Ark of the Covenant (Tabot.) It is always kept in ornate coverings on the altar. Only priests are allowed to touch the Tabot. In an elaborate procession, the tabot is carried around the outside of the church amid joyful song on the feast day of that particular church’s name sake.

The theological analysis of the practice of administrating the Eucharist using the Tabot, has a strong theological foundation that the Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahedo Church practicing today. Ark is the offering of the new covenant, the New Testament speaks of the new covenant that God made with His people, one based on the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. (Luke 22:19) says, “and He took bread, gave thanks and He broke it, and gave it to them, saying this is my body given for you…this cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

Therefore, what is its theological analysis of the practice of administrating the Eucharist (the New covenant), using the Tabot, in Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahedo Church? Eucharist is the celebration of the economy of salvation. The economy of salvation has two parts, the Old covenant and the New Covenant. Old covenant which started in the selection and call of Abraham by God got fulfilled and the New Covenant started in the incarnation of God the Son. The old covenant serves as the foundation of the New, which is superior to it. Ark of the old Covenant symbolizes and represents the old covenant whereas the Eucharist is the highest expression of the New Covenant in which the economy of salvation culminates. In the Eucharistic celebration of the Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahedo church, the Eucharistic elements (bread and wine) are placed over the Ark of the Covenant. In other words we can say that ark serves as the basic for placing the Eucharistic elements. Altogether the ark, the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ on it express “the fullness of The Covenant.”

According to the book of “Kibre Negest”, the ark and the Eucharist have strong relationship to practice the New Covenant. And the ark is the horns of the altar where the holy priests offer sacrifice, and who place on it the table, the likeness of the grave, in Golgotha, in which He was buried, and what is on top on the table is the likeness of the first offering, that is the flesh of Emmanuel, Akratos pure, who has not in Him mixing, which our savior took from Saint Mary, of which He said to His Holy Apostles, “eat my flesh and He who does not eat my flesh doesn’t have a portion with me, and doesn’t have everlasting life and he who eats my flesh, if he dies, he will forever, and he is joined in my body and my blood,….”

This passage from the Kibre Negest rather links the significance of the ark to the tabot in a church, and what is happening and offering when the Eucharist is prepared and this is quite significant. There appears here to be moving away from the heavenly imagery, which we will also find in Saint Ephraim, to something more focused on the Tabot. The two should not be completely separated, however, since in the church we have the symbol of the heavenly reality. Certainly I the original thought of Saint Ephraim, and I would argue Saint Yared, the two will be symbolically connected.

The other description, how the Ethiopian orthodox Tewahedo church used the Tabot (ark) for the offering of the Eucharist: The Ethiopian Altar takes the form of a portable altar. It is a rectangular, Tabot (Tablet of wood), engraved with the name of Jesus Christ and the name of the saint to whom it is dedicated. The Eucharistic sacrifice is offered upon the altar tablet. When not in use it is stored with in a chest or coffer termed Tabot. The Altar Tablet (Tsilat) and the chest in which it is stored may together be termed the Tabot. The chest may also be called a ‘throne or „Menbere-Tabot’ is the throne of the Tabot. While the duplication of terms and the shifting referent of the term initially may be confusing, such practice suggests the symbolic importance of the altar tablet and its chest.

There is more theology to this practice using of the altar tablet, sometimes called “Tabot”, for administrating the Eucharist is very interesting and more theological. In the old testament it was the high priest that entered the Holy of Holies where the ark was with the blood of atonement to atone for the sins the people committed against God. In the New Testament it is Christ who is our high priest who offered Himself for our salvation. By combining these two theological concepts the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church uses the Tabot to serve the Eucharist that is beloved by the church to change to the true body and blood of our Lord.

The Theological analysis of Eucharist administration represents the process of salvation performed at Jewish court to the cross. The ark is the transcendental symbol of the divine presence at the heart of the church, and it constitutes a living link between the Old Testament covenant and the New Testament advance. It witnesses to the continuation of the presence of God among His people throughout the centuries. It connects in particular with and through symbolic theology.

The tradition of administrating the Eucharist using the Tabot is an ancient practice going back to the early church. In ancient Coptic Church, during period of persecution, the priests placed the holy elements for the celebration of the Eucharist on an altar slab, which is the equivalent of a Tabot. If they were forced to flee they could carry the altar slab with the sacred vessels to safety, and thus didn’t risk desecration of the Eucharist. Thus during the period of persecution it had a particular purpose. It also has deep theological significance to connect the celebration of the Eucharist, with the Tabot. The breaking of the bread, the body of Christ, and the sharing of the blood of Christ, is connected with the show-bread in the Old Testament, and the “Manna”, which was kept as a reminder in the ark. The ark was the place where the “Shekina,” “Glory of God” was manifested; just as the Eucharist manifest the continuous main folding of the presence of God among His people.
Theological concept of other things couldn’t be touched in liturgical service?

Nobody is allowed to see the ark (Tabot) in EOTC; other than the priests who have the permission, others don’t feel worthy to look at the tabot or even to approach it if the tabot is touched by a layman it must be re-consecrated (qadasa) by the, “Abuna” before it can be used in a church. (Josh 3:3, 1 Sam 6:6-7) the question is why forbidden to see and touch?

King David’s servant Uzza, touching the Ark of the Covenant and dying correlates with Eve touching the tree of knowledge of good and evil and experiencing a spiritual death in the garden of Eden. After the resurrection the Messiah appeared in a vision to Mary and told her “…Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my Elohim (God), and your Elohim (God) [John 20:17].” Mankind was touched 50 days later when the Holy Spirit revealed itself to the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4; see” how did the tradition of *laying on hands* begin?).

Why Uzza, Eve, and Marry (the creature of woman, in principle, not the creator; Isa, 54:5) were forbidden to touch the Ark, the tree, and the Messiah, respectively, is a mystery and has great spiritual importance. The obvious conclusion you may reach regarding these instances is that the people who touched the forbidden objects are disobedient, but there is a much deeper meaning,

Why can’t mankind touch Spirit?

It is the spirit that touches man’s consciousness or soul to reveal His power and spiritual attributes. Man doesn’t have the power to touch Spirit or discern its characteristics with his limited mind (Romans 8:6); but should have endeavor to get the Spirit. When Mosses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, along with the 70 elders of Israel, saw the Elohim’s Spiritual body in a vision, Moses wrote that Elohim “laid not His hand” upon them or did not touch them (i.e. Elohim did 14 not give them any understanding- Exodus 24:11). The creature of female was passive in this relationship and had to be quickened by the male.

Worshiping and Rituals

Women are prohibited from entering the church during menses; they are also expected to cover their hair with a large scarf (or shash) while in church, per 1 Corinthians. 11. As with Orthodox synagogues, men and women are seated separately in the Ethiopian church, with men on the left and women on the right (when facing the altar). Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers remove their shoes when entering a church, in accordance with Exodus 3:5 (in which Moses, while viewing the burning bush, was commanded to remove his shoes while standing on holy ground). Furthermore, both the Sabbath (Saturday) as the previous and the Lord’s Day (Sunday) are observed as holy, although more emphasis, because of the Resurrection of Christ, is laid upon Sunday.