27 December, 2011

A Tewahedo Christmas Eve

Sometimes this woodchuck ventures out of his burrow and doesn't have to ramble far to feel that precious sense of discovery. 

My friend Paul is a man of many passions - a consummate contradancer, a philatelist whose stamps are lessons in history and geopolitics. He recalls time spent in Austria, and laments the absence of truly good doner kebab in Boston (an observation with which i concur).  When we made dinner plans i'd promised to introduce him to Afghan food - but since i'm scraping rent together from odd jobs, needed something less expensive. So we decided to try out a little Ethiopian place in Malden another acquaintance had raved about. 

Up the orange line, a walk in the brisk night air to Malden center - neither of us with smartphones, and none of the people in the few shops that were open knew of the restaurant. But a block or two of wandering, and there it was, Amharic script on the sign: Habesha, as one online reviewer called it "an unassuming spot… for those more interested in food than environment." At least on Christmas eve, the clientele seemed to be mostly of east African descent, which bode well in our quest for authentic ethnic cuisine. 

Now, this is not a restaurant review; it was my first foray into African cuisines, the flavors unfamiliar. We began the meal with samossas and spiced tea (the water is spiced; choose your own teabag), and struggled to read the small font on a menu with the dishes named first in Amharic. The kitifo (ground beef with Ethiopian butter and chili pepper) and doro tibs (sauteed chicken with onion, hot pepper, garlic, and fresh tomato) were served without utensils, accompanied by rolls of the spongy, sourdough injera flatbread. I sat in the dimly lit restaurant, with Ethiopian music videos playing, tearing off strips of injera to scoop up the meat and wondering if i'd ever start to like the sourdough flavor, and somehow i felt a lot farther from Boston than Malden. 

On our way back, as we passed the First Baptist Church, carols rang out from a carillon. Churchbells, something heard so rarely in America - and the in the clear cold, the sound had a certain transport to it, nevermind the bells that rang a bit off key. Across Malden center, i could see the stained-glass windows of another stone church glinting in the urban night. 

Back when i worked on a Christmas tree farm in Maine cranking out mail-order centerpieces, replenishing the homemade doughnuts and cider, and baling the occasional tree, the holiday season was a seven week marathon of jingling commercialism and manufactured tradition, and holiday music was as stuck in my head as the balsam pitch was stuck to my fingers. This year it rather snuck up on me. Suddenly, it was Christmas eve. I picked up the phone to dial a dear friend, and remembered it was also his birthday. That's how the whole day went, a sort of existential surprise. 

What stirred within me, with stained glass glinting and bells ringing a little off key, surprised me. Religion, inasmuch as it carries the hallmarks of a human institution, is not something i take kindly to, too often hijacking an individual's spiritual journey for political ends - and yet there are moments when, shedding their hierarchies, shedding hearsay and heresy and the secondhand ideas of Divinity that people kill each other over, moments when religious ritual and symbol speak to me from their depths of the deep human longing toward God. 


Something in the evening's juxtapositions got me curious. So i did a bit of research: Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christianity relies on the Julian calendar, and so, like the Armenian Apostolic Church and other Oriental Orthodox faiths, they'll observe Christmas on the other 25 December, which - by the Gregorian calendar the rest of Christendom uses - is 7 January. (A curveball in the "taking back Christmas" culture wars?) Why the schism? Why two completely different calendars? The answer, it turns out, lies back in 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, an early schism of earth's most schismatic faith, one little discussed among the vocally Protestant crowd. I don't pretend to know anything about the theology involved here; if there's anything life's recent lessons have taught me, it is the need to maintain a healthy sense of how little i actually know, and to nurture the curiosity it engenders. 

That schism was based on a simple disagreement about the nature of Jesus Christ: was he two natures, Divine and human, in one body? Or was he a single nature, Divinity become human? (Which latter the term "Tewahedo" sums up nicely: being made one.) It might seem like a silly distinction, but the personal theological implications of that question struck me as immense. Christ as person, Christ as symbol: not a dichotomy, but a unity, human and Divine being made one. It's an idea at the heart of Christianity, and at the heart of Christmas - a holiday which, i hear, is under attack. 

….. to be continued?