According to the Rite of the Ethiopian (Ge'ez) Church

By Archbishop Paulos Tzadua (Cardinal Emeritus)




The Ethiopian rite is one of the oldest rites and is used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as by that group which is in full communion with the Church of Rome, The Ethiopian Catholic Church. In its essential elements, it stems from the Alexandrian rite and the language used in the services is classical Ethiopian called Ge’ez.

Because local documents are lacking, it is difficult to reconstruct the history of the Ethiopian rite, and to study the various phases through which it attained its actual form. This lack of historical witness is the result of politico-religious upheavals that led to the destruction of the literary and archeological patrimony to do with the liturgy.

Early turmoil destroys documentation

Ethiopia, in fact, had been twice the scene of such uprisings: at first in the 10th century and again in the 16th century. The first protagonist was the famous woman Judith of the Falashas group that claims to descend from the Jews who immigrated in the distant past. The second was the Muslim Mohammed Gragn. Both of them gave their disruptive movements an anti-Christian background and consequently they destroyed temples and monasteries and all the treasures of the sacred literature preserved there.

The difficulty in making a historical reconstruction of the liturgical rite is further increased by the inaccessibility of Ethiopian monasteries. These monasteries are the very depositories of the few documents that could be saved from the above-mentioned destructions.

st. frumentius invested as first bishop of ethiopia

The starting-point of the history of the Ethiopian rite must, in any case, coincide with the introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia. The evangelization of Ethiopia, in its true, strict sense, began about the middle of the 4th century. The first bishop was St. Frumentius who was invested by the great St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. Before his investiture as Bishop of Ethiopia, St. Frumentius had, together with his brother Edessius, a long stay in Ethiopia as minister of the court of Axum, historical capital of the Ethiopian Empire. All these are confirmed by the historian Rufinus of Aquileia in his Historia Ecclesastica1 and by an authentic comment inserted in the Apologia of St. Athanasius, namely in the letter sent by Constance to the king of Axum2 and, before all, in the Ethiopian tradition itself.

Concerning the history of the Ethiopian liturgy, some facts can also be deduced from the historical sources mentioned above of the Ethiopian tradition, which relate to the work of St. Frumentius before and after his consecration as Bishop of Ethiopia. During his stay at Axum as minister of the court, he took advantage of any occasion to do apostolic work among the foreigners established there for business. Rufinus expressly says that Frumentius "nequerere sollicitus est soqui inter negotiatores Romanos Christiani essent" (he took pains to find out whether there were Christians among the Roman businessmen.) Then, having discovered them, he gave them a helping hand "ut conventicula per lova singula facerent ad quae Romano ritu orationis causa confluerent" (that they may have their assemblies in the different places where they could come together for prayer according to the Roman Rite.)3

In reference to the inhabitants of the country, Ethiopian tradition relates that Frumentius had found an environment saturated with Judaism and Christian influence.

He inquired of the people how it came about that having circumcision and (Christian) faith, they did not have Baptism and Eucharist. The people told him that circumcision was practiced because it was inherited from their ancient Levite Fathers, that they had the faith from the eunuch of Queen Candace4, while as for Baptism and the Eucharist no Apostles were sent to them. Tradition adds that Frumentius, after having gone to Alexandria, remained there for five years and was instructed by St. Athanasius on the New Testament because he had been sufficiently instructed in the Old Testament in the milieu of [an] Axum prone to Judaism. After his Episcopal consecration, Frumentius returned to Ethiopia carrying with him the entire liturgy.5

development of the liturgy

As regards the general history of the liturgy, Ethiopia was included in the Christian world in the middle of the fourth century; the situation may be described as follows: After a period of religious intolerance, the Church began to have more space to breathe. The basilicas were built and the liturgy, basically the same in all the churches, from a simple systematic ceremony, began to be enriched and it developed with characteristics different from one place to another. Although the liturgical language was Greek, everywhere, there arose, especially in the East, various types of liturgy, before all the Antiochene and Alexandrian types.

st. frumentius brings alexandrian rite to axum

The insertion of Ethiopia in the Christian world occurred during this period of liturgical development, and this happened precisely under the influence of the Church of Alexandria. The type of liturgy introduced in Ethiopia by St. Frumentius could not be any other therefore, than that of the Alexandrian type. The liturgical language used in the beginning was, there is no doubt, Greek. In fact, with the Macedonian conquest at first and later with the influence of the Ptolemies, the Greek language spread not only in that part of Africa around the Mediterranean basin, but also to the court of Axum, in Ethiopia. This is proved by the inscriptions on the steles, which trace their origin to the 4th century A.D. and also from the inscriptions on coins of the same period.

In this century, the liturgical language of all the local churches was still Greek. St. Frumentius, during his first stay in Ethiopia as a minister of the court of Axum, worked primarily among the foreigners who were certainly Greek speaking. Returning to this country as bishop of Ethiopia in Axum, he facilitated the construction of oratories. This construction-work was probably the starting-point of his formal apostolate to the Ethiopians and they were redolent of Hellenism. This, nevertheless, only emphasizes that the need for a translation of the liturgy into the Ethiopian language was not yet urgent. The common people had not yet succumbed fully to the Hellenic culture either linguistically or in other aspects of life, therefore it is certain, that the need for translating the liturgy into their mother tongue was understood.

translation into vernacular

This eventually happened as religion entered among the common classes of people. It is not possible, however, to pinpoint the date of the translation of the liturgy. Yet it is certain that, at the end of the 5th century, it was already a fact. It is probable that the work of translation might have had its beginning at the time of St. Frumentius, because it is inconceivable that the saint limited his apostolate to Greek-speaking foreigners.

It has been stated that the liturgy introduced by St. Frumentius into Ethiopia was without doubt the Alexandrian one. This is the one into which he would have been initiated by St. Athanasius. The Ethiopian Rite, therefore, derives its origin from Alexandria.

language, customs and songs make rite unique

A comparison between the Ethiopian liturgy and the ancient Alexandrian one confirms the dependence of the Ethiopian Rite on that of Alexandria. There is a similarity between the Ethiopian and the Egyptian Coptic Rites, which stems from their common origin. This can be seen not only in their structure but also, in some instances, texturally. The Ethiopian Rite is undoubtedly Alexandrian in origin, but it has undergone such an evolution that the actual form of the liturgy, so very distant from the original, seems on the point of assuming the dignity of an independent rite. Language, customs and songs contributed largely to this evolution, giving the Ethiopian rite its own characteristic features.

Just as every rite presupposes a set of canonical norms that govern it, so also the Ethiopian rite has its own canonical rules, as far as liturgy is concerned, which were taken from the deposit of ancient legislation.

ge'ez church documents

The canonical discipline, which governs the Ethiopian liturgy, is contained mainly in the books called in Ethiopia Sinodes, Metsehafa Kidan Ze’egzi’ne Yesus Krestos, Didesqelya, and Fetha-Negast.

The Sinodos is a vast collection of ancient canons extinct in the Ethiopian Church because it is a version of the Egyptian Church Order. In it, besides canons attributed to the Apostles, the canons of Clement, the canons of Hippolytus of Rome, the canons of the Synods of Ancrya, Neocaesarea, Gangra, Antioch, Laodicaea, and the canons of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea are also included. The Metsehafe Kidan Ze’egzi’na Yesus Krestos is the Ethiopian version of the Testamentum Domini nostri Jesu Christi, Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ, a document of Syrian origin (5th century), and the Didesqelya is the Ethiopian version of the Didascalia Apostolorum, patterned on books I-VII of the Apostolic Constitutions.6-7

The Fetha Negast (The Law of the Kings) is a translation of the Namocanon which, it is believed, was written by the Egyptian As-Safi ibin al-‘Assal around the middle of the 13th century. It deals with matters related to the canon and civil laws and, in small part, also to the criminal law. Originally compiled for the Christians living in Egypt, it was introduced into Ethiopia where it became the fundamental book for the teaching of law in the Ethiopian schools up to modern times.

The Fetha Negast is divided into two distinct parts. The first deals with religious matters depending on the ancient church canons and the writings of a number of the Fathers of the Church, while the second deals with secular matters depending mainly on Roman Byzantine laws. Containing canon and civil laws, its sphere of influence is vaster than that of the other three books. Consequently, this book is more circulated and easier to find, particularly because printed editions are available.8

It seems certain that the Fetha Negast was introduced into Ethiopia and translated from Arabic towards the 15/16th century. As for the other three books, scholars believe that they were introduced towards the 14/15th century and that they were translated from Arabic.9

There are, however, scholars who believe that the Sinodos and the Testament of Our Lord has been translated from Greek.10 It is worthwhile to note that in Ethiopia the period of translation from Greek was from the 4th-7th centuries.11 It is also to be noted that the Ethiopian Church adds the Sinodos and the Testament of Our Lord2 to the number of the Canonical books of the New Testament. This confirms that it knew them from early times.

authority of documents goes back to apostolic times

This is why these books, besides the rules of Christian life the ecclesiastical regulations were based on, and, in particular, detailed canons regarding the liturgy were found [to be of utmost importance]. Formalities, prayers, formularies for all the liturgical services from the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice to the administration of the Sacraments are based on these books. Two formularies for the Divine or Eucharistic Liturgy are based respectively on the Sinodos and the Testament of our Lord and as will be seen below, one of these, i.e. the extract from Sinodos, is the principal model for the other formularies of later origin.

The importance that the Sinodos, the Testament of Our Lord and the Didescalia had and continue to have up to our days with regard to the canonical discipline of the liturgy, can be estimated from the disposition contained in the Metsahafa Qeddasie, the Ethiopian 'Missal', which says :"Whoever he might be, Metropolitan or Bishop, Presbyter or deacon, who does not have sufficient instruction or who does not know the contents of the books of the Testament of Our Lord, of the Sinodos and of the Didesqelya and all the rubrics, do not enter into the sanctuary for the ministry; and if he rashly dares to enter, let him be taken away from the church and degraded."

liturgical reform of 15th century king

In spite of all this, it is not to be believed that the liturgical discipline remained static with regard to the rules of the canons contained in the books already mentioned. The canonical rules pertaining to the cult developed indeed with the progressive changing of the liturgy. This is seen from numerous works that continued to follow in the various centuries. The epoch that knew a considerable expansion and evolution of liturgical discipline in general was the 15th century. Due to the impetus of the Emperor Zer'a Ya'qob (1434-14680, there was a great movement for the reform of the worship in his empire.3

our lady honored

During this epoch, the Ser'at we'Tezaz, the 'Rules of Precepts', comments, collections of canons and rubrics from the Liturgy and the administration of the Sacrament were compiled. There appeared also at the same time the Metsehafa Bahrey or 'Book of Essence' and the Teaqebo Mistir or 'Care of the Sacrament'. The first contains the rules that have to be observed in administering the Anointing of the Sick, while the latter prescribes which care is to be observed in regard to the Eucharist that there be no profanation in administering or in receiving it4. The reorganization of the liturgical feasts as well as the introduction of new feasts in honor of Our Lady, the Angels and the Saints are also attributed to Zer'a Ya'qob.

The new feasts gave occasion for composition or translation of the new proper parts and new holies related to these feasts.

apostasy to islam

No sector of the cult was neglected in the reforms and the reorganizations of Zer'a Ya'qob. In the 16th Century, a ritual was written which was called Metsehafa Qeder or 'Book of Impurity ', i.e. a penitential book. The drawing up of this ritual was brought about by the fact that, during the Muslim invasion under the leadership of Mohammed Gragn, many Christians apostatized embracing the Muslim religion. When the power of the Muslims had been overthrown, this ritual provided for the reconciliation with and the reinstatement into the Church of those had had apostatized5.

liturgy evolves over centuries

In the 17th century, there appeared also the penitential book entitled Fewse Menfesawi or 'Spiritual Medicine', which was translated from Arabic6 and contained rules for some liturgical acts. On the whole it can be affirmed that, on the basis of the canonical rules of the ancient book, the Ethiopian rite did not cease to develop both in its discipline as well as in its essence over the course of the centuries. Concerning this evolution, however, there was a lack of centralized direction for coordinating and regulating the necessary stages in the evolution. The hierarchy sent by the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria was a stranger to both the language and the liturgy of the country. The only task reserved to the then respected hierarch (Abuna) was to administer Holy Orders, to bless the holy Oils and the tabot (the sacred tables or stones for the altars). The elaboration and the transcription of the liturgical texts, the teaching of the liturgy were entrusted to the professors, mainly laymen (the so-called Debtera) who had a theoretical knowledge of liturgical question. By entrusting such persons with the monopoly of the liturgy, without central control, it was quite natural that postpositions, additions, omissions and doublings occurred rather arbitrarily as can be noted in the liturgical texts of the different epochs.



When treating the historical evolution of the Eucharistic Liturgy in its essence, it must be stated, first of all, that the Divine Liturgy according to the Ethiopian rite, as in all other rites, is divided into two parts, i.e. the introductory part called the Ordo Communis and the Eucharistic part called Anaphora.

structure of the liturgy

The Ordo Communis is invariable except for the readings from the New Testament, for the Gospel and the three verses taken from one of the Psalms and sung by the deacon alternating with the people before the gospel. The Ethiopian sources say that St. Basil of Antioch arranged this.7 Anyway, structurally, it comes from the corresponding part of the Ancient Alexandrian liturgy, which in the 4th century followed this order:

    1. The greeting of the priest to the faithful and their response
    2. Readings and hymns
    3. Gospel and Homily
    4. Dismissal of the Catechumens
    5. The Kiss of Peace
    6. The Offertory8

Keeping this structural basis in its essential lines, the Ethiopians Ordo Communis developed in such a way that it is somewhat similar to the other Oriental Liturgies yet having its own characteristic features. Parallel to other Oriental Liturgies, the Rite of Preparation was introduced placing the Offertory at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy; later the Ceremony of Incensing, the Song of the Trisagion and the Creed were introduced.

Its Evolution, with its own characteristics, can be seen from the various manuscripts and the printed texts of the different periods. The changes and developments, to which this part was subject, are arranged into three stages by the Ethiopian doctors.

early missal printed in rome

The first stage of development includes the parts added to the primitive text of the Divine Liturgy and is documented in the manuscripts dating back to the beginning of the 16th century and also in the MISSAL printed in Rome in 1549 by the Ethiopian monk Abba Tesfa-Sion.

The second stage, documented in manuscripts of the 17th and 18th centuries, includes additions and the changes the established order was subject to in the manuscripts of the 16th century. This meant that the rubrics, the brief and expressive prayers their order of succession, set down in the first documents, were subject to the developments and changes in the texts of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The third stage covers further developments of the second stage that are verified by modern texts. Under the guidance of the texts of the period, it appears that the parts that underwent the greatest developments and changes are the preparatory parts--the Offertory and the Ceremony of Incensing. These parts which in the first documents, had a number of proportioned and limited prayers and formulas together with a systematic arrangement of ceremonies, became, in the course of time, lengthened in prayers and formularies and more refined and pompous in ceremony.

liturgy subject to innovation

Because of the nature itself of the liturgical act, which is an expression of religious vitality corresponding to the psychology of the people and of the surroundings where it is carried out, it may be said that the Ordo Communis as a whole did not remain rigid in the original formulas. With the passing of time, it was therefore subject to innovations: New prayers and new ceremonies were introduced, already existing ones were suppressed or simply transposed.

variety of eucharistic prayers (anaphoras)

Speaking now of the Eucharistic part of the Anaphora, we must state, first of all that it is changeable according to the feast days of the liturgical year. Because of this variability, the Ethiopian rite has a rather large number of Anaphoras. It is further affirmed that, among the Oriental Churches, the Ethiopian Church has the second greatest number of Anaphoras, being preceded only by the Syro-Antiochene Church. Up to now, 20 anaphoras are known:

      1. Anaphora of the Apostles
      2. Anaphora of Our Lord
      3. Anaphora of St. John the Evangelist
      4. Anaphora of the 318 Orthodox Fathers (of the Council of Nicaea
      5. Anaphora of Our Lady (I) (which is said to have been composed by Kyriakos of Behnsa)
      6. Anaphora of St. Athanasius
      7. Anaphora of St. Basil
      8. Anaphora of St. Gregory of Nyssa
      9. Anaphora of St. Epiphanius
      10. Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom
      11. Anaphora of St. Cyril(I)
      12. Anaphora of St. James of Sarug
      13. Anaphora of St. Gregory
      14. Anaphora of St. Dioscorus
      15. Anaphora of Our Lady (II) by Gyiorgis of Gasseccia
      16. Anaphora of St. Mark
      17. Anaphora of St. James, Brother of the Lord
      18. Anaphora of Our Lady (111)by Gregory
      19. Anaphora of Our Lady (IV) by Gregory
      20. Anaphora of St. Cyril (II)

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church recognizes and accepts only the Anaphoras listed from 1-14. It does not recognize any of the other Anaphoras. They consider them apocryphal. The last edition of the Metsehafe Qeddassie printed under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches which is used by the Catholics of Ethiopia, includes, besides the number accepted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also number 15, 16,and 17. We know of the Anaphoras 18-20 only from scholarly works.

The general premise about the historical origin, the chronology and the authors of almost all the Ethiopian anaphoras is that up to now nothing definite has been said. However, it should be asked which of the above-listed anaphoras are the oldest in the Ethiopian Church.

It is historical fact that St. Frumentius was sent from Alexandria as the First Bishop of Ethiopia. This fact could induce one to believe that he brought the liturgy under the name of St. Mark, the (Greek) anaphora of the same name, at that time used by the Church in Alexandria. It can and must be admitted that the ritual system, i.e. the organizing structure of the rite brought and used by St. Frumentius, was that which carried the name of the Liturgy of St. Mark. As far as the particulars about the anaphora are concerned, it is only a mere presumption. As for the Greek liturgy of St. Mark (with respective anaphora), it is well known that it has been translated or adapted by St. Cyril of Alexandria (444 A.D.), almost a century after St. Frumentius. At the present, the Greek anaphora of St. Mark exists in the Coptic Church of Alexandria under the name of St. Cyril. There is also the Ethiopic Anaphora of St. Mark, (no. 16). Some scholars have stated that at certain times it was used in Ethiopia9 and that it must have been the ordinary Anaphora in the Ethiopian Church0 during the 14/15th centuries. On the other hand, however, besides the fact that it is not an exact translation of the Anaphora of St. Mark/St. Cyril, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not recognize it. The Ethiopian doctors know of its existence, but they maintain that it was composed or translated doctrum gratia and they definitely consider it apocryphal. All this, and in particular the unfavorable attitudes of the Ethiopians toward this anaphora, make it bewildering [impossible] to declare it as the oldest in use by the Ethiopian Church, at least in its actual form.

anaphora of the apostles accorded primacy

The oldest anaphora used in Ethiopia seems to be that of the Apostles (no.1). It is in fact, an almost faithful reproduction of one of the oldest Eucharistic prayers known, namely the Eucharistic prayer of the Traditio Apostolica of Hippolitus of Rome (A.D. 250). It is certain that at the time in which St. Frumentius was appointed and sent as Bishop of Axum (about 340 AD), the Traditio Apostolica was known in Egypt (Egyptian Church Order) 1, and that the Eucharistic prayer therein was used by the Egyptian Church. Perhaps it can be presumed that St. Frumentius had had an endowment from Alexandria, a copy of the Traditio Apostolica (alias Egyptian Church Order)22, or an excerpt of the Eucharistic prayer therein, which later on will be developed and enriched with other elements. On the other hand, there were the Roman businessmen to whom St. Frumentius gave help to have their assemblies for prayer according to the Roman rite. Isn't it possible to presume that the liturgical text of this rite might be that of the Traditio Apostolica? It could also be presumed that at least the work of translation of this liturgy might have taken place at the time of St. Frumentius or of his immediate successors for the pastoral reasons exposed before.

The fact that the Anaphora of the Apostles is based on the Sinodos and the latter is believed to have been translated from the Egyptian Church Order into the Ethiopic language in the 14/15th century has induced some authors to state that the said anaphora was introduced into Ethiopia during that time.23 But it would be interesting to investigate if the 14/15th century translation of the Sinodos was only translation. Or was it also a compilation i.e. a collecting or putting together in one corpus canons translated at that time and canons already translated, such as parts in which the Eucharistic prayer in question is included.4

As for the Ethiopian tradition, on the other hand, there does not seem to be only [any] disagreement that the Anaphora of the Apostles holds priority over all the anaphoras. The Ethiopians agree that the Anaphora of the Apostles preceded the other anaphoras and, therefore it is considered as medebawi, i.e. as the model or basis for the others.

Another anaphora that came to be considered in Ethiopia as being quite ancient, perhaps as ancient as that of the Apostles, is the Anaphora or Our Lord (no.2). It is derived from the well-known work entitled the Testament of Our Lord.

To conclude, the fact that these two anaphoras came from the two books (the Sinodos and the Testament of Our Lord) which, according to E. Bishop, "embody the ancient, genuine and native tradition of the Ethiopic (Abyssinian) Church"5 confirms once again their primacy

With regard to the other anaphoras, we must say, first of all, that when we speak of the names of the authors, we are deal with pseudonyms. These pseudonyms are names of Apostles and of the Church Fathers that are added to the text to give it more credibility.6

authentic ethiopian anaphora

We can only speak with certainty about the author and the origin of the Anaphora of Our Lady (II) (No. 15). The author is, in fact, the famous Ethiopian monk Abba Gyorgis of Gasseccia who flourished during the reign of Amda-Sion (1314-1344). 27 It is therefore, an authentic Ethiopian production. Besides the author and the origin, the chronology of this anaphora is certain. The text of the anaphora is in rhyme, which supports the assertion and the fact that it was originally composed in Ethiopian; it is to be noted however, that the poetic form is verifiable also in parts of many other anaphoras, especially in nos. 2-14 and nos. 18 and 20. This fact may lead to the supposition that many anaphoras, if they are not originally composed in Ethiopia, are perhaps free translations.

According to the German scholar E. Hammer Schmidt 8, the following list includes those anaphoras, which almost certainly originated in Ethiopia and those, which are composed from foreign elements in such a way that they must be regarded as typically Ethiopian in character:

Anaphora of St. John the Evangelist (no.3)

Anaphora of the 318 Orthodox Fathers (no. 4)

Anaphora of Our Lady (1) by Kyriakos of Behnsa (no.5)

Anaphora of St. Athanasius (no. 6)

Anaphora of St. Gregory (no.8)

Anaphora of St. Epiphanius (no 9)

Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom No.10)

Anaphora of St. Cyril (nos. 11 and 20)

Anaphora of St. Gregory (no. 13)

Anaphora of St. Dioscorus (no. 14)

Anaphora of Our Lady (III) by Gregory (no. 18)

In this list, the Anaphora (II) of Our Lady by Gyorgis of Gasseccia is also included but we refer to what has been said about it above.

Examining the inner content of the Anaphora (I) of Our Lady No.5), and the Anaphora of St. Athanasius (no.6), we find that they have some peculiarities which deserve being mentioned.

The Anaphora of Our Lady (I) has certain connections with a Dersan (homily) on Our Lady, which the Ethiopian Church possesses, but which is certainly of foreign origin. It resembles the Oratio et Laudatio in Sanctissimam Dei Genitricem Mariam (Panegyric or Praise of the Most Holy Mother of God, Mary) of Proclus9. This may mean that such an anaphora has partially a foreign influence.

As for the Anaphora of St. Athanasius, its text refers to keeping Sunday holy. There are, on the other hand, the well-known "Dersane-Senbet", more or less long homilies on Sunday0, considered by the Ethiopian Church as part of its ancient sacred literature. Between the Anaphora of St. Athanasius and the Dersana-Senbet, there is a connection as both the anaphora and the Dersane-Senbet exalt Sunday.1

syriac influence

There are anaphoras, which represent a foreign influence such as the Anaphora of St. Mark (no. 16), St. James, Brother of Our Lord (no. 12) and of St. James of Sarug (no. 17). The latter two show a definite Syriac influence. Ethiopian tradition affirms that the Anaphora of James of Sarug was of Syriac origin and was introduced into Ethiopia by an Ethiopian called Woldesellasie.2

An Anaphora, which can be considered as a true translation, the Anaphora of St. Basil (no. 7) does correspond more or less to the anaphora of the same name used in the Coptic Church of Alexandria.

As for the Anaphora of Our Lady by Gregory (IV) (no. 19), we can only say that it exists but still remains unpublished.

The exact origin of the greatest part of the anaphoras is still far from a certain solution. What can be said with certitude is that they are found only in the Ethiopian Church in their present form, with the exception of St. Basil.

history of sacred literature

Leaving aside the Anaphoras of the Apostles, of Our Lord and the Anaphora of Our Lady (II), the question of chronology or of the date of composition or translation of the text of the other anaphoras remains even more uncertain. The oldest existing manuscripts go back only to the 16th century, but obviously the dates of the manuscripts should not be the only criterion for determining the true age of the texts contained in them. If we turn out attention to the general history of Ethiopian sacred literature, we find that there were two periods of fruitful literary production.

The first period goes from the fifth to the seventh century and in this period the Sacred Scriptures and many works of monastic life were translated, especially from the Greek.

After a long period of silence, which lasted up to the middle of the 13th century, came the second period of literary production. At this time, we find many original works such as the Anaphora of Our Lady (I), and also the translation of many works from the Arabic were produced. The drive to translate from Arabic was encouraged by the Egyptian Metropolitan Salama with the intention of renewing and fostering the contact between the Ethiopian Church and the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. The translation of the Anaphora of St. Basil and the composition or (free) translation of many other anaphoras may have coincided with this second period.

Regarding the inner structure of the anaphoras, it must be said that, in general, all of them were more or less elaborated according to the classical form of the Anaphora of the Apostles.

thanksgiving dialogue

There are however, some variations that must be mentioned here. As is customary in all prefaces, a textual characteristic of the Anaphora of the Apostles is to recapture the concept of thanksgiving at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer. This echoes the thanksgiving proclaimed by the celebrant in the penultimate phrase of the dialogue, which precedes the prayer as follows:

CELEBRANT: Give thanks to our God.

PEOPLE: It is right and just.

CELEBRANT: We give You thanks, O Lord…

Besides the Anaphora of Our Lord, the Anaphora of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Anaphora of St. Gregory, the Anaphora of our Lady (III) by Gregory, the Anaphora of Our Lady (IV) by Gregory, the Anaphora of St. Cyril (II) and in an approximate way, the Anaphoras of St. Mark and St. James, the Brother of the Lord, have followed this form. Many of these anaphoras adhere also to the sober, clear and well-proportioned form of the Anaphora of the Apostles.3

The other anaphoras begin the Eucharistic prayer without any conceptual connection with the dialogue and the length of some is disproportionate with respect to the anaphora model of the Apostles. The main parts, as the introduction of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Prayer of Intercession, the Sanctus, the Institution Narrative, the Epiclesis have the same order of succession. There are, however, some remarks to be made about the Prayer of Intercession and the Epiclesis in reference to some few anaphoras. With regard to the Prayer of Intercession, while it is normally placed within the introducing Eucharistic Prayer and Sanctus, exceptions are found in the Anaphoras of St. James, the Brother of the Lord, and of St. Basil. In these two anaphoras the said prayer comes after the Epiclesis as in the Anaphoras of the Syriac-Antiochan type. In the Anaphora of St. Gregory of Nyssa, while the Epiclesis in this anaphora seems to have an unusual placing as will be seen below.

epiclesis placed after invocation

As for the Epiclesis, it is normally placed after the consecration and it has the well-known characteristic of being a prayer for the descent (or the sending) of the Holy Spirit on the bread and cup, and to have always the same rubric which says: "CELEBRANT: in low voice and with his head bowed down"4

Among the anaphoras from No. 1-17, as listed above, there are three anaphoras in which the Epiclesis with the said rubric and with the express allusion to the Holy Spirit is certainly missing. These are the anaphoras of Our Lady (no.5), of St. Athanasius (no. 6), and of St. Gregory (no.13). In the Anaphora of St. Gregory of Nyssa, there is a prayer before the consecration with the same rubric of the Epiclesis, which says: "O my Master… send the Holy Spirit and power on this bread and on this cup which sanctify our souls, bodies and spirits…"35. This is certainly an Epiclesis, but its placing is unusual.

In the Anaphora of James of Sarug, there is an Epiclesis, but the prayer is for the descent of the Lamb instead of the descent of the Holy Spirit. As for the passage which follows and which reads: "Let 'Melos' the fearful sword of fire be sent and appear over this bread and cup to fulfill this offering"6, the term Melos is rendered as 'the Holy Spirit' in the Aramaic version of the Ethiopian Missal.7 Between the Prayer of Intercession and the Sanctus, there are some exhortations addressed by the deacon to the faithful, which alternate with prayers of the celebrant. The usual order of succession of these exhortations is as follows:

      1. "You who sit, arise!"
      2. "Look to the East!"
      3. "Answer!" (followed by the Sanctus)

Many anaphoras, however, have undergone transpositions, and in one instance (Anaphora of St. Gregory of Nyssa), the penultimate exhortation is redundant as it says, "Let us look at the beauty of our God's glory."



church architecture

It seems useful to examine briefly the organization and inner structure of the Ethiopian Divine Liturgy. We will begin with a description of the place where the cult is celebrated, the church. It is generally round, divided into three concentric circles in imitation of the ancient temple of Jerusalem. The first circle is the chorus where the singers and the people have their place. The second is the Sancta, which is reserved for those who will be receiving Holy Communion, and the third is the Sancta Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies, where the Tabot or the altar is placed. Here, only the officiating ministers may enter. There are very few modern churches in the big cities. Older Catholic churches do not adhere to the above description but follow the Western style.

sung rite

In the Ethiopian rite, the Divine Liturgy is always sung, and it usually lasts for about two hours. Consequently, as a general rule, low Masses are unheard of. Only among Catholics, in the imitation of the Latin practice, has this last form been introduced.

ministers of the eucharist

Normally the officiating ministers must be five in number, i.e. the celebrating priest, the priest assistant, the deacon, the sub-deacon and the lector. But this number is in derogation of the canons, which prescribe that the minimum number should be seven: they still add fan-holder and the candle-bearer. The derogation is done because in small centers, it is hardly possible to find the number of ministers requested by the canons. The canonical rule of having seven ministers is, however, strictly observed in the monasteries. Sometimes even 13 ministers celebrate, but this is rare. On the other hand, the six additional ministers have no particular duties, except giving the celebration some solemnity.

Regarding the ordinary practice of five ministers, this is their placement during the liturgical service: the celebrant is in the center facing the East. To his right are the sub-deacon and the lector. In front of the celebrant is the deacon holding the asrykar cross (i.e. facing West).

Concelebration, as practiced in the Latin right in which the same matter is consecrated (consecrare simul eandem materiam) by many celebrants, is not known in the Ethiopian rite. There exists a form of concelebration, which may be called inappropriate. This occurs when there are three celebrants united in prayers and in the singing while having three different altars with their own bread and wine and their own ministers. A like practice is known in the Syro-Antiochen rite.

According to the regulation of the Fet’ha Negest, the vestments must be white in memory of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Red is also permitted in remembrance of the Precious Blood of Christ. In practice, however, any color is allowed.8

Holy Communion is distributed, as in all Oriental rites, under both species.

ordo communis

Regarding the structure of the Divine Liturgy, it has been said above that it is composed of two parts: the Ordo Communis and the Anaphora. The Ordo Communis includes the rite of preparation of the Offertory, of the Absolution of the Son (i.e. the prayer is addressed to Christ), of incensing, of the various readings, the Gospel, the Creed and the Kiss of Peace.

The Rite of Preparation consists of the personal preparation of the celebrant as well as the preparation of the sacred vessels of the cult and of the altar. On entering the temple, the celebrant recites a penitential prayer and the Psalms 24, 60, 101, 102, 121 and 130. He concludes with other prayers imploring a blessing on the temple and on the sacred vessels. Intensifying the Preparation, the celebrant recites prayers said to have been composed by St., Gregory, and, having approached the veiled entrance to the Sancta Sanctorum, he recites a third prayer attributed to St. John. Thereafter, he begins with the preparation of the altar and of the sacred vessels with appropriate prayers. Having finished these preparations, the celebrant addresses another prayer to God the Father asking help for himself and for the people. Finally, he adds the last preparatory prayer taken from different psalms.

Now he puts on the sacred vestments and, having washed his hands, he begins the Introit while the congregation sings: "Halleluiah! Hail our Mother Holy Church…"

The Liturgy continues in this order: the blessing of the bread, the Offertory, the blessing of the chalice, the Doxology: "One is the Holy Father, One is the Holy Son, and One is the Holy Spirit" and Psalm 116. The celebrant continues the prayer of thanksgiving attributed to St. Basil, after which the assistant says the prayer for those who have brought the gifts for the sacrifice. When the bread and the chalice are covered, the Prayer of Absolution to the Son is said by the assistant, and the deacon continues with the litanical intercessions to which the people answer: "Lord, have mercy on us--Kyrie Eleison."

Now the Incensing ceremony begins. The celebrant, while reciting the prayer for the Church, the altar, the hierarchy, the priests and the whole Church, burns incense on the altar.

Then come the readings in a fixed order: from the Epistles of St. Paul, from the Catholic Epistles and from the Acts of the Apostles. Prayers of the celebrant and songs of the faithful follow each reading. After the third reading, some praises of the Holy Virgin are read by the celebrant. Then, as the sub-deacon carries the Gospel, preceded by many candles, all the ministers leave the Holy of Holies. The celebrant blesses the priests present while those officiating and the people alternately sing the solemn hymn of incense. Thereafter follow the Trisagion, the prayer before the Gospel, and some litanies, which are recited by the assistant.

With the reading of the Gospel, the Liturgy of the Catechumens comes to a close. The catechumens are exhorted to leave by the deacon saying: "Leave, O catechumens!"

The Liturgy of the Faithful begins with the prayers for peace, for the hierarchy and for the congregation of the faithful, after which the deacon exhorts the people to sing the Creed. Then the celebrant uncovers the Eucharistic bread and wine, and he washes his hands. After the hand washing, the prayer of the Kiss of Peace, attributed to St. Basil, is recited. With the Kiss of Peace, the unchangeable part of the Liturgy, the Ordo Communis, comes to its end.

anaphora (eucharistic prayer)

Now it is to be seen how the Eucharistic part of the anaphora is developed. The Ordinary formula is the Anaphora of the Apostles. Prior to the dialogue of introduction, the celebrant sings the first part of the Eucharistic Prayer, the deacon sings the prayer of Intercession, and thereafter the assistant recites some prayers of benediction. The celebrant continues by taking over the second part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is interrupted now and then by the deacon who, with special phrases, urges the faithful to pay attention because of the seriousness of the moment.

As a corollary to the prayer, the celebrant sings the Sanctus, which is repeated by the faithful at the invitation of the deacon: "Answer!" Then begins the institution Narrative. While the consecration is going on, the faithful profess their faith in the Eucharist by repeating: "We believe, we believe, we believe that this is truly Your Body; we believe…that this is truly your Blood." Now the people sing a short song recalling the death, the resurrection and the Second Coming of Our Lord. The celebrant recites the Prayer of Anamnesis and of Epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit to sanctify the Eucharistic gifts and all those who will share in them. After the Epiclesis, the prayer of the Breaking of the Bread is recited or sung by the celebrant alternating with the faithful.

lord's prayer

At the invitation of the deacon: "Pray!", the faithful sing the Lord's Prayer. The celebrant takes up again the embolism; prayers and hymns sung by the celebrant and the faithful follow. Then the deacon invites those present to prostrate themselves in fear, and the celebrant recites the "Prayer of the Penitents" (this prayer is addressed to God the Father) and two commemorative prayers for the hierarchy and for the faithful to attention saying: "Let us be attentive". The celebrant, raising the host, says: "Holy to the Holies;" to this, the faithful respond with a Trinitarian profession. Then, alternating between the celebrant and the faithful, the invocation, "O Lord, have mercy on us, O Christ" is repeated forty one times. Now the celebrant turns to the faithful and recites a penitential prayer, then turning to the altar, he makes a profession of faith in the Holy Eucharist and in the Mystery of the Incarnation.

After preparatory prayers recited by the celebrant and the faithful, Holy Communion takes place. During Communion, the priests who are present and the choir sing Psalm 150 as well as other Eucharistic antiphons, until the distribution is finished.

The principal act after Holy Communion is the Thanksgiving with the prayer, said by the celebrant, called "The Pilot of Souls." Purification of the Sacred Vessels, the final blessing and the farewell exhortation to the faithful by the deacon ("Go in peace") bring the Liturgy to a close.




The Anaphora of the Apostles



CELEBRANT: The Lord be with you all

PEOPLE: And with your spirit.

CELEBRANT: Give thanks to our God.

PEOPLE: It is right to give Him thanks.

CELEBRANT: Lift up your hearts.

PEOPLE: We lift them up unto our Lord.

CELEBRANT: We give you thanks, O Lord, by your beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom in the latter days you sent for us. He is Your Son the Savior and Redeemer, the angel of your counsel. He is the Word who is from You and through whom You made all things by your will…You sent your Son from heaven into the bosom of the Virgin…He became flesh, and was borne in the womb, and his birth was made known by the Holy Spirit…He came and was born of a virgin to fulfill your will and make a holy people for You…He stretched his hands to the passion, suffering to save the suffering who have trusted in Him. He offered Himself on His own will to the passion that He might destroy death, and burst the bond of Satan, trample on hell, lead forth the Saints, confirm the law, and make known his resurrection.

He took bread...He gave thanks…saying: Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you…

In the like manner, He took the chalice, saying: Take drink, this is my Blood which is shed for you…As often as you will do this, you will do it in remembrance of me.

Now also, O Lord, remembering His death and His resurrection, we offer unto you this Bread and this Chalice giving thanks to You. You have given us the favor of standing before You and doing Your priestly service…Uniting all those who are to receive his Body and his Blood, grant that it may be for their sanctification and that they may therefore receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and being confirmed in the true faith, they may give you glory and praise through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.




Ruffinus is documented in Eusebius of Caesarea, whose CHURCH HISTORY he has translated and extended for some decades.

2 Migne, PATROLOGIA GRAECA, 45, 481-489

3 Rufinus, ibid.

4 Acts, 8:26-40

5 ETHIOPIAN MISSAL (METSE’HAFE-QEDDASE), Addis Abeba, 1918 (Eth. Cal.). p. 16, column 1

6-7 cf. I. Guidi, STORIA DELLA LETERATURA ETHIOPICA, Roma 1932, p.11;

E. Cerulli,, LA LETTERATURA ETIOPIA, Milano 1968, p. 14-18.

J.M. Harden, ETHIOPIC DIDASCALIA, London, 1920.


Abba Paulos Tzadua, THE GET’HA NAGAST, THE LAW OF THE KINGS, Addis Abeba, 1968

9 cf. I. Guidi, STORIA DELLA LETTERATURA ETIOPICA, op. cit. pp. 337-38, 40.

10 J.M. Harden, THE ANAPHORAS POF THE ETHIOPIC LITURGY, London, 1928, p.1-3. Harden makes also reference to Cooper and Macdlean, THE TESTAMENT OF OUR LORD, P/ 248.


12 A.F. Matthew, THE TEACHING OF THE ABYSSINIAN CHURCH, London 1936, p.62

13 I. Guidi, STORIA DELLA LETTERATURA….op. cit. P.49ff.

14 I. Guidil, ibid. p.51

15 I. Guidi, ibid. p.72

16 That is according to foreign scholars (I.Guidi, Storia…op.cit. p.78; E.Cerulli, LA LETTERAURA…op cit. p. 176). Ethiopian sources give different versions, such as, for instance, the period of the FEWSE MENFESAWI appearance in Ethiopia, which is believed to be the 15th century; cf. Liqe Seltanat Habtemariam Worqenah, TENTAWI Ye-TIOPIA TEMHERT, (The ancient/School/Learning in Ethiopia) Addis Abeba 1963 (Ethiopian Calendar) p. 227.

17 See S.B. Mercer, THE ETHIOPIC LITURGY, London 1915, p. 151 where it is said that the British Museum Manuscript N545, at the beginning of the Order of the Mass (Ordo Communis) there is an ascription which reads: 'This is the order which Basil of Antioch compiled.' Cf. Also Hammer Schmidt, STUDIES OF THE ETHIOPIC ANAPHORAS, Berlin 1961, p.48 and fn.n.5. St. Basil, as well as being the author of many church rules, is also recalled as "ASTEGABA'I", i.e. compiler of many anaphoras; cf. ETHIOPIAN MISSAL (METSE'HAFE-QUEDDASE) op. Cit. p. 336, col 1. See C.F.A. Dillman, LESICON LINGUAE AETHIOPICAE, 1864, P. 1173:"Astegaba-I" compilator libri.

18 I.M. Hannssens, INSTITUTIONES LITURGIAE DE…….Rome, 1930: V.11, p. 473

19 About the Ethiopian Anaphora of St. Mark, see A.?T.M. Semharay in EPHEMERIDES LITURGICAE,42 (1928( p. 440 ff, 507ff.

20 I.M. Hannssen, INSTITUTIONES….op. cit. p. 641.


24 After all , it seems usual that kind of collections need to pass through several stages before becoming a definite single compendium. As for the Sinodos, cf. L. Seltanat Habtemariam Worqeneh,TENTAWI Ye-iTUIOUA…op. Cit. p. 225-226.

25 In the Journal of theological studies 12 (1911) P. 399.

26 E. Hammerschmidt, Studies…op. Cit. p. 41

28 E. Hammerschmidt, studies…op. Cit. p.48

29 E. Hammerschmidt, ibid. p.76 fn. N.4.

30 See C.A.F. Dillman, LEXICON lINGUAE…op. Cot. P.1094: Dersan (pl. Dersanat) -tractatus, dissertatio, Libellus…homilia, oratio sacra…

31 The exaltation of Sunday is dealt with often in homilies attributed to some Father of the Church. In Sinodos there is a Dersane-Senbet and in 1959 (Eth. Cal.) two Dersane-Senbet were printed in Addis Abeba: the first "to be read on Christian Sabbath (Sunday)" contains various Christian teachings and there are some points, especially at the end, which exalt Sunday. The second besides containing Christian teachings, exalt Sunday in many points which show direct connections with the Anaphora of St. Athanasius, such as the following: "Listen o dearest children of the church on the greatness and the honor of the Christian Sabbath (Sunday), the Father hallowed it, the Son blessed it and the Holy Spirit honored and exalted it". Similarly in the Anaphora of St. Athanasius one reads: OH this day is what the Father hallowed, the Son blessed and the Holy Spirit exalted' )See THE LITURGY OF THE ETHIOPIAN CHURCH, English translation of the Ethiopian Missal by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Addis Abeba 1954, p.144) For some opinions regarding the Ethiopian sources which possibly might have influenced the composition of the Anaphora of St. Athanasius, cf. E. Hammerschmidt, Studies…op. Cit. p.72ff.

32 cf. A.T.M. Semharay, LA MESSE ETHIOPENNE, Rome 1937, p.99

33 As for Theological and Christological Characteristics in the introductory Eucharistic prayer of the Ethiopic Anaphoras, cf. Hammerschmidt, Studies…op. cit. p.72ff.


34 See the Ethiopian Missal (Metsehafe Qeddase) printed under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Rome 1938 (Ethiopian Ca.) It must be noted here that the concept of the Epiclesis in the Ethiopian context is expressed by the term 'Ye-reseo' "May He (the Holy Spirit_ make them literally It"--i.e., the bread and the cup the Body and Blood of…. With regard to the said term and the 14 Anaphoras recognized by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, some Missals in use in the same Church have a note which says that seven Anaphoras have the Ye-reseo and they are those of the Apostles, of Our Lord, of St. John the Evangelist, of St. Basil, of St. Epiphanius, of St. John Chrysostom and of Dioscorus. The other seven do not use such a term, but they make use of other formulas.

36 See THE LITURGY OF THE ETHIOPIAN CHURCH, English translation, op. Cit. p.175.

37 See the ETHIOPIAN MISSAL (Metsehafe Qeddase) (1818) cit. p. 439, col. 2. The term Melos is also found in the Anaphora of St. Cyril (no.11). In C.F.A. Dillmann, Lexicon…cit. p.146, Melos, peregrinum incertes notionis, cf. Also E. Hammerschmidt, Studies…op. Cit. p.161ff.

38 cf. A. Paulos Tsadua,THE FET'HA NEGAST, op. Cit. p.82.





SINODOS, Manuscript in the Church of Ledeta Mariam, Addis Abeba

METSEHAFE KIDAN (Testament of Our Lord), Manuscript in the Church of St. Gabriel, Addis Abeba

THE ETHIOPIAN DIDASCALIA, English translation by J.M. Harden, London, 1920

CANONES APOSTOLORUM AETHIOPICAE, Latin translation by W. Fell, Leipzig 1871

DERSAME SENBET, Addis Abeba 1959, (Eth. Cal.)

METSEHAFE-QEDDASE, (the Ethiopian Missal), Ge'ez-Amharic Text with extensive commentary by Ethiopian Doctors, Addis Abeba, 1918 (Eth. Cal.), Ethiopian Missal (Metsehafe-Qeddase) by the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Rome 1938 (Eth. Cal.)

THE LITURGY OF THE ETHIOPIAN CHURCH, English translation of the Ethiopian Missal, by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Addis Abeba, 1954.

THE FET'HA NAGAST,(The Law of the Kings), English translation by A. Paulos Tsadua, Addis Abeba, 1968.


E. Cerulli: LA LETTERATURA ETIOPICA, Milano, 1968.


E. Hammerschmidt, STUDIES IN THE ETHIOPIC ANAPHORAS, Berlin, 1961.




S.B. Mercer, THE ETHIOPIC LITURGY, London 1915



A. Teclemariam Semharay, LA MESSE ETHIOPIENNE, Rome 1937


A. Teclamariam Semharay, VARIATIONES IN LITURGIA

S. Merci, in Ephemerides Liturgicae, 42 (1928). Id. NOTA CIRCAM LITURGIAM AETHIOPICA, in Ephemerides Litrugicae, 42, 1928



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