Since time immemorial, Ethiopians have worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus, the Apostles and saints. According to an ancient tradition, Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, carried the Ark of the Covenant off to Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia. This same tradition holds that the Ark, which the Hebrews believed symbolized the presence of God among them, remains in Aksum, enshrined in the cathedral complex of St. Mary of Zion. Within the sanctuary of every Ethiopian Orthodox church, a tabot rests on the altar, a reminder of God’s revelation in word and sacrament.
As evening drew near, the city’s clergy, balancing the sacred tabots, slowly converged on Jan Meda, the “Field of the King.” In my youth Jan Meda was considered the preserve of the monarch. Situated on this majestic field is the Pool of Temqat. This pool, considered holy by believers, was to be blessed by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, after vespers and an all-night vigil.
Elaborately decorated tents, erected on the field for the occasion, housed the sacred tabots. Meanwhile, two rows of priests, deacons, monks and debteras were formed. Separated by a patch of earth, but facing one another, the clergy began to chant the psalms rhythmically, the pace set by a priest-drummer. Throughout the night, in the tents where the tabots rested, the clergy recited prayers and chanted the holy office while the laity kept vigil in the open air.
Early on the morning of the feast Abune Paulos arrived at Jan Meda. Dressed majestically in white, and surrounded by his retinue of bishops, the patriarch took the place of the emperor, the “King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah,” the central figure of these ceremonies when Ethiopia was considered a Christian realm.
The celebration began with a series of sermons, which contemplated the meaning of Jesus’ baptism and the significance of God’s words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Delivered by monks from the country’s remote monasteries, these often lengthy reflections were followed by prayers and hymns.
Finally the patriarch, encircled by his clergy, solemnly blessed the waters of the Pool of Temqat with a golden cross. The rite was simple: the patriarch plunged the cross into the waters while the assembly chanted hymns and antiphons. The crowd stirred when the patriarch sprinkled the dignitaries and faithful with the blessed water — with a hose!