FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 28: World news reports recently showed tens of thousands of Ethiopians gathered in Meskel Square to mourn their late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Today, Ethiopians celebrate the holiday for which this square is named: Meskel, a unique holiday celebrating the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena. The sea of candles lighting the night for weeks to mourn Zenawi (view photos here) will become bonfires as this holiday nears.
Meskel recalls an ancient Christian story: In her search for Christian relics, Roman Empress Helena (the mother of Emperor Constantine) lit an enormous bonfire to help find the cross on which Jesus was crucified, a relic called the True Cross by believers. Today for Meskel, bonfires once again are lit, ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful and some even believe the direction of the fire’s smoke predicts future events. (Wikipedia has details.)
Ethiopians have a particular reverence for the True Cross tradition, because it’s believed that a part of this precious Christian relic was brought to Ethiopia. Of course, countless churches and shrines around the world claim to possess a bit of this relic. Around the world, Catholics and Orthodox Christians revere these relics, but Ethiopians are distinctive in their annual celebration of the True Cross’s discovery.
The traditional story begins in the 4th century with Empress Helena in the midst of her travels to find and preserve early Christian landmarks. One night, Helena was instructed, through a dream, to light a bonfire; the smoke would float in the direction of the true Cross. She ordered all of Jerusalem to gather firewood and, upon adding frankincense to the fire, the smoke rose high—and returned to ground level, precisely above where the Cross was buried. To this day, Meskel celebrations include a careful attention to the direction of the bonfires’ smoke.
Far from Ethiopia, another cross relic was recently reported missing: a 3mm piece of wood that belonged to a church in Killeshin, Ireland. (The BBC has the story.) This relic of the True Cross was contained in a pewter container and was brought to Holy Cross Church in 1822.