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The Ethiopian Cross

The Ethiopian Cross usually has an elaborate design, baroque style or filigree, reflecting the richness of the hearts of people in the Ethiopian Church.

Ethiopian Cross
also known as Abyssinian Cross

The Ethiopian Cross
An Ethiopian processional cross
(Click image to enlarge)

Ethiopian Catholic Church logo
Ethiopian Catholic Church
(Click image to enlarge)

European missionaries brought Christianity to many parts of Africa, in parallel with colonialism. But this was not the case with Ethiopia.

The kingdom was probably the second country (after Armenia) to embrace the Christian faith, when St. Frumentius of Tyre converted King Ezana during the 4th century. There is evidence that Christianity thrived in the country even in the 1st century and for most of the country's history since, the state religion has been Orthodox Christianity.

There was a brief experiment with Catholicism in the 17th century when Emperor Susenyos allowed himself to be persuaded by Jesuit missionaries from Portugal - possibly a political move to help secure Portuguese and Spanish military assistance.

If that was his cunning plan, it backfired. Not only did the European soldiers fail to arrive, but the demands of Rome were just too unpalatable for the Ethiopians. Centuries of culture were threatened and many Ethiopians revolted with great loss of life. The emperor relented, expelled the missionaries, and in 1632 the state religion reverted to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that rather than the familiar European Latin Cross, the Ethiopian Cross has a distinctive 'African' appearance (see also the Coptic Cross). These are often named after the Northern Ethiopian regions and towns they are found in; for example Lalibela, Axum and Gondar.

The Ethiopian Cross

Ethiopian crosses are invariably made from elaborate lattice work. Hand crosses usually include a square at the base, which represents the Ark of the Covenant and both the Ark and the Cross bear the Shekinah (see Prince of Peace Cross). Geometric patterns are common in Ethiopian art and there is order and meaning in the intertwined lattice style. This represents everlasting life and also relates to the nature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The Ethiopian Church (the largest being the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) is Monophysite; accepting the Christological position that Christ has only one nature (divine), as opposed to the Hypostatic Union or Chalcedonian position (accepted by Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox) which holds that Christ has two natures, one divine and one human.

When Catholics, Anglicans and others make the sign of the cross it is customary to use two fingers, with or without the thumb touching them. Two fingers and the thumb brought together represent the Holy Trinity; two fingers alone represent the two natures of Christ. Although they are touching each other, they are still separate digits. This contrasts with the intertwining construction of the Ethiopian Cross, which symbolises the mixture of the two natures.

Whether Christ is One of combined natures, or is One of parallel natures, will keep theologians busy for the next generation or so. However well educated and intelligent we might be, there are still many things we do not understand.

For those who prefer proof to faith

In science, our knowledge of the universe is growing but still severely limited. How much of the universe we are actually aware of, we don't really know. (And most of us are too egocentric to admit that we don't know.) Cosmic energy seems to be mainly 'dark energy' (73%) and 'dark matter' (23%). This is the stuff that is believed to hold the universe together and accelerate its expansion, but mankind has not yet identified the nature of this energy and matter. The remaining 4% consists of atoms and molecules that can be identified by mankind (or rather, a clever subset of mankind).

In medicine, following the invention of the microscope in the 17th century, microbiologists have studied diligently to understand the nature of bacteria. But even after 300 years, they admit to only having studied perhaps 1% of earth's microbes.

Since man can only understand only 4% of the nature of matter, and since man can only understand 1% of the nature of microbes, (and since man cannot understand the nature of women at all!) how can anyone claim to fully understand the nature of God?

What we can do, and this is really simple to understand, is to love God and to love one another. And the cross shows us the most perfect example of love that can ever be discovered. See the meaning of the cross.