August 2019

Fancy a challenge?

I am writing this shortly after my return from Ethiopia. It is an extraordinary country - weepmakingly beautiful and varied with the most welcoming and friendly people and excellent food and drink. It also has probably the longest Christian tradition of any country - certainly longer than ours. And it has the most extraordinary churches. In Lalibela, there are thirteen churches dug out of the ground, so built entirely from one piece of rock. But even they pale compared with the churches in the Gheralta Mountains in the Tigray province.

The landscape is like that of a spaghetti western with massive sheer sandstone mountains rising from the ground. And on top of these mountains are churches dug into the rock.Note the word ‘sheer’. The only access is by climbing up incredibly steep gullies and slopes. And people do that regularly. When speaking to them, the most frequent reason given is that it brings them closer to God. The most extreme case is the church of Abuna Yemata Guh. There was a feature on the BBC about this, calling it the most dangerous church in the world to have a baptism. You can see a clip on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saLJNsKuabs. There was in fact a baptism there the day after we visited. It was to be at midnight - as if climbing up a sheer rock face, crossing a gap with a 200 metre drop on either side, and standing on a narrow sloping ledge with a 400 metre drop in daylight was somehow cheating.

Now, you might think that this is an extreme way to go about showing your faith, but showing your faith is what the people there are emphatically doing. And it poses a question.What am I prepared to do to show my faith? How much risk and danger am I prepared to take to show my faith? Or is claiming to be a Christian in this country so totally unchallenging that the need to even think about how strong that faith is just never arises. I know people who would claim to be Christian but who would not ever feel the need to feed that faith by driving to church on a Sunday - let alone climbing to the top of a sheer mountain.

There are a number of aspects of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that I would find theologically questionable, but beyond question is the faith of its members and the strength and the courage that faith gives them. Faced with that strength and courage, I felt immensely humbled, and still do. I have always felt that a faith that isn’t challenging is thin and fragile. These wonderful people create perhaps unnecessary challenges, but, my word, do they meet them.