The Churches of Lalibela
By Leith Hamilton, People’s Warden
In the mid-1970s, I lived in Ethiopia. This was during the end of Haile Selassie’s reign and just afterwards. They were turbulent times. There was a strict curfew after the demise of the emperor until the regime realised that the passengers on the first flight of the day were stranded until the curfew was lifted. It meant visiting friends for lunch, or staying the night.
Driving home could be a challenge as, in the evening, hyenas loped alongside the car, perhaps hoping for an engine failure. I resolved that, if this ever happened – and it did not – I would stay put and wait in the car.
Lalibela was always of great interest to me but, while living in Addis Ababa, the only way to visit was on horseback. Not ideal for me as I was expecting our first born, at the time.
Decades later, when Hammers and I visited Ethiopia, we could fly into the Lalibela “airport”. A “tin shed”. This flight had its moments as we had to have the aircraft’s shades down lest we see the military sites with their range of fighter bombers and other equipment. Our hotel in Lalibela was an ugly concrete structure, we shared it with a tour group of Jewish travellers celebrating their Sabbath, perhaps, hoping to see signs of the Lost Tribe of Israel said to be of Ethiopian origin.
We passed by the market place – mercato -, where everything is sold in the traditional manner – no packaging or labels. Rock salt, spices, shamas, rubber sandals made from tyres, nuts, bolts, goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens, fruit…. you name it, they have it.
Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian country on Earth. There are many Christian artefacts and sites throughout the country. Ethiopians practise the Coptic form of Christianity. But travellers of any faith are drawn to the churches.
Legend has it that the churches in Lalibela were carved below ground at the end of the 11th Century after God ordered King Lalibela to build them. God sent a team of angels to help the King. They took 24 years to build. Each was chiselled from a single block of stone. The roof of each temple is level with the surrounding undulating land.
For centuries, devout Christians travelled by foot and by donkey to see the churches in the Northern Highlands. The skulls and mummified remains of some of the travellers lie in tombs chiselled deep into the cliff walls around one church – Beit Giorgis.
The churches stand in two groups on either side of the River Jordan, many of them connected by a labyrinth of narrow tunnels. From a distance, the churches seem almost hidden in the rock from which they were carved, only to be discovered when standing near the edges of the deep trenches which surround them.
Beit Giorgis – the House of St George – is isolated from the others and is almost a perfect cube hewn in the shape of a cross, with three concentric crosses carved on its roof. Its only access is through tunnels, where steps lead to the entrance of this 12-metre-high structure. The whole complex of the eleven churches is surrounded by a deep trench.
Far from being a dead relic, Lalibela’s churches throng with local worshippers. Wrapped in white robes, some read biblical passages written on parchment, in Ge’ez, a 2500-year-old language. Others prostrate themselves to kiss the stone floors. In a darkened chamber, musicians bang drums made of goat hide, accompanying priests’ singing.
Deepening cracks running the lengths of some church ceilings are of concern and UNESCO is in talks with the government, religious authorities and locals on how to carry out painstaking restorations. In some cases, the State has largely left repairs to be carried out by the faithful, as best they can. During our visit, the renovation of one church had commenced and the building was covered by a corrugated-iron roof, to protect the workers and the site.
The Lalibela churches, though essentially Ethiopian, also embody many oriental decorative features, among them the swastika – a traditional emblem in Ethiopia for 6000 years. The churches have certain features in common, but also differ significantly from each other. Colonnades, gabled roofs, arches, windows filled with panels of pierced stone ornamental with a central cross exterior, bas relief figures carved foliage, animals, birds and many styles of silver crosses – some processional and some to be worn.
The techniques that were used in the construction are lost forever in the mists of a remote and mysterious history where legend and fact intertwine on the edges of magic. But the churches stand as monuments to the power and the spirit of an ancient Christian faith.
If you would like to read more about the Churches of Lalibela, the following Bibliography may be useful:
A Rasta’s Pilgrimage Neville Garrick
Under Ethiopian Skies G. Garrick, R Pankhurst, D Willetts
Ethiopie Bernard Gerard
Welcome to Sea Sunday!
Rev Bob Driver’s 12 July Sermon
Job, 38:1, and 4 – 11
Epistle: Acts 27:27-44
Gospel: Gospel According to St Mark: 4:35-41
You’ve probably read and seen photographs of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in 1912. His ship “Endurance” was stuck in the ice, and 28 men were marooned, living under upturned lifeboats on Elephant Island, with virtually no hope at all of being rescued. Shackleton and six of the crew
set off nonetheless, to cross 800 miles of the stormiest waters in the world, to get to South Georgia where there was a whaling station. Eventually they reached the southern shores of South Georgia. Then, setting out from there, Shackleton and two of the crew spent 36 hours crossing the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to get to the whaling station. Eventually all were rescued, just as they were in our story from the Acts of the Apostles today about Paul’s shipwreck on Malta.
Shackleton wrote about crossing the mountains of South Georgia – the three of them had a great sense of the presence of a fourth person walking with them. They were much encouraged by that, just as St Paul by breaking the Eucharist bread encouraged all the people as their ship foundered on the Maltese shore.
We do not travel alone; especially pertinent in these troubled times. The Disciples in the Gospel reading today must have wondered, however – Jesus is in the boat for sure, but he’s fast asleep in the stern! It reminds us rather strongly of another story of Jonah with the prophet asleep in the hold of the ship in the midst of a great storm sent by God himself. The pagan but God-fearing sailors throw Jonah overboard as a sacrifice and the storm abates. We are left wondering, will the “lacking in faith” disciples of Jesus throw Jesus overboard likewise!? Well, they don’t – they do have faith enough to wake Jesus and explain the problem they are in. Nevertheless, there are sacrificial overtones – “evening has come on that day” which usually refers to the Passover and also to the day of the crucifixion of Our Lord. “Let us go across to the other side”, says Jesus, an allusion to the exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea. Behind this is the idea Rf escaping from the slavery of fear to the freedom we have in the love of God – Jesus asleep in the midst of a terrific storm suggests indeed his own freedom from fear.
They took Jesus in the boat “just as he was.” I’m always intrigued when I read that. We might be invited to a party or something like that, and the host or hostess has told us “just come as you are”. There’s an informality here which can be taken as “Oh, thank goodness I don’t have to dress up for this”; or perhaps you might think “Oh dear, I’m not being considered very highly if I’m just being asked to come as I am!”
The Disciples take Jesus in the boat as he is, not knowing yet who precisely he is – at the end of the reading, they indeed ask, “Who is this whom even the wind and the sea obey?!” Having control over the elements doesn’t necessarily mean you are God – Moses parts the Red Sea and he’s not God! The only ones in the Gospel who know who Jesus is, are the demons and the unclean spirits and Jesus nearly always tells them to keep their mouths shut about it! He wants the disciples to work it out for themselves, until they can say like Peter, “you are the Christ, the son of the living God”.
According to CS Lewis, we have 3 options in considering who Jesus is:
- He’s a liar – he says he is God, but he isn’t
- He’s a lunatic, who thinks he’s God, but in reality, he isn’t
- He says he’s God, and he is God
Jesus tells the rich young ruler, “Come, follow me.” That is the way to decide who Jesus is, by following him wherever he leads, through stormy seas, through calm, through suffering. Jesus came to announce the kingdom of heaven, entry to which is through faith. Its mystery is about the cross; the kingdom comes gradually, by grace according to our ability to take it. It comes through scripture and sacrament. Like the disciples in the boat, like St Paul at Malta, like our very own St Thomas, we have to move from what is visible to what is invisible with the help of the Holy Spirit who encourages us in whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Just as he did for St Paul and for Earnest Shackleton.
John Goodwin and myself are involved in a funeral on Tuesday; a young lad only 14. You can imagine the storm that rages within the mother and father and the whole family. May we pray for them, that they may find the encouragement they need.
Automatic Payment (AP)
The banking industry in New Zealand is undergoing its own little revolution at the moment. In as little as 12 months if not sooner, payment by cheques will be phased out in favour of direct payment through the internet banking system, and cash payments will have been replaced mainly by eftpos or credit card payments.
The banks plan to make this happen by not issuing any more cheque forms, refusing to honour cheques written without a form (which as far as I know is still legal), and by largely refusing to accept deposits of cash. Expect the law which controls banking to change to make way for these changes, although some changes may be quite legal even without any law change.
This is all not as scary as it perhaps sounds. Eftpos and credit card payments already greatly exceed the value of cash transactions among shoppers in New Zealand, and a decreasing number of payments of account are being made by cheques.
It is unlikely that churches will need to buy eftpos machines in order to receive money donations from their congregations. Instead, it is much more likely that donations on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis will have to be pre-planned (as many people do now anyway), so they can be programmed into each bank’s automatic payment (AP) system every week, fortnight or month.
If you already use personal internet banking, you almost certainly have the facility to make automatic payment to an organisation like a Church; at worst, you will just need to start using it. If you can’t fathom it out, your bank will help you.
The internet banking system of every bank requires much the same information from its customers, and it would be good if the Government required all banks to use the same system, as a condition for making any necessary adjustments to the banking law; that way, every internet banking system would look the same, which would make them less confusing to use. As it is, each bank is free to develop its own system, and all I can do is describe the principles of internet banking without guaranteeing yours will work exactly the same as all the others.
The essence of setting up an automatic payment through your own bank’s internet banking system is to plan ahead; generally, in three blocks:
- a. How often do you want the automatic payment to be made;
b. How much to you want each payment to be for; and
c. To which Church do you want to pay the money?
In addition, you bank will want to know –
- What additional information do you want recorded about the Automatic Payment in your bank statement? and
- What additional information do you want recorded about the Automatic Payment in the bank statement of the receiving Church?
For question 1.a, and b., the answers may well be “weekly”, and whatever sum per week you put in the plate now (perhaps even a little more?! – but you will need to write it down). For question 1.c, the answer is the “Church’s Bank Account number”. This is the 15-digit number-in-4-blocks which appears at the top of every bank statement your church receives. For our church the number is 03-0259-0257104-00. You must write down all the digits in your automatic payment form; but they need be written down only once so long as that AP is in force. Some bank accounts instead have 16 digits, with three digits making up the last block; they must all be written down.
For questions 2., and 3., most banks provide two or three voluntary “fields”, in each of which you can put up-to 15 characters of information. They don’t all have to be filled in, and the letters may generally overlap between contiguous fields. In the information fields in your bank statement you will probably want to record that it was your Weekly Church Donation, and in the fields in the Church’s bank statement you will need to record your name, and that it was a Donation – because recording both of these will ensure that you get full credit for your annual donation in your end-of-year receipt.
Setting up an automatic payment is a convenient method for making regular payments such as your weekly donation. If you change churches, you can easily cancel your AP and set up a fresh one at your new church.
For less frequent payments, and for payments which vary in size each time you make them (such as paying for a wedding or a funeral, or for regular monthly hall hire,) it is likely to be more convenient to set up a Direct Debit rather than an automatic payment. In essence this is very similar to an automatic payment, except that it will apply only once – if there are several direct debits in the course of the year (such as for monthly hall hire, where some payments will be for four weeks, some for five, and some missed payments due to holidays), you need to make each payment separately rather than automatically.
If you don’t have internet banking connected to your bank account, you will need to got to the bank and fill in the necessary forms there. This is time consuming and inconvenient – and banks have a vested interest in making so, because they don’t want you to have to do that either.
The line of least resistance would therefore be for those helpful Church members who have internet banking, to assist those who haven’t, to get it; because unfortunately you can’t use someone else’s internet banking to access your bank account.
Some Homework – just for fun
A question, to be answered as soon as you like:
“What is the significance of each of the four blocks of numbers which make up the Churches (and for that matter your own personal) Bank Number”?
Faith, Not Explanations
From a recent edition of “Time” Magazine.
Drawn to our attention by Duncan Bamfield
The coronavirus-induced limitations on life have arrived at the same time as Lent, the season of doing without. But this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to: a fast without the promise of a feast.
No doubt some will tell us why God is doing this. A Punishment? A warning? Perhaps the biblical tradition we really need to turn to is Lament. Lament is what happens when people ask “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centred worry about our failings and look at the suffering of the world.
In the Bible, God also laments. The Spirit groans. Jesus weeps. God grieves for his world. It is no part of the Christian vocation to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead. As the spirit laments within us, so we become small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding and new hope.
Written by N T Wright, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews
St Thomas’s Tamaki
This article appears to be shrouded in some mystery. The name of the author is unknown to the editor of the Messenger. In this article, reference is made to an article appearing in the Cotton “Journal”, which is kept in the Dixon Library, Sydney Australia. The “Cotton” referred to is almost certainly Rev W Cotton, who in 1844 conducted the first service in St Thomas’s Church Auckland, prior to its completion in May 1847. The Rev Cotton also made the first sketch of the church in 1844-45 (see page 13). The subsequent sketch of the ruins of the Church by J P Sydney (p 14) is thought to have been made in the late 19th Century.
The present Church of St Thomas stands on a corner site where the main road to Kohimarama forks from the St Heliers Bay Road, less than a kilometre from St John’s College. This is the site of a much older church of the same name which is commemorated by its foundation walls, which have been carefully preserved to mark its location and form.
The site was selected by Bishop Selwyn in consultation with Government officials before Selwyn moved from Auckland to Waimate. The land was presented by the Colonial Treasurer, Mr Alexander Shepherd. The foundation stone was laid by the Acting Governor, Lieutenant Willoughby Shortland, on St Thomas Day 21 December 1843. The first service in a partly-completed church was conducted by Rev W Cotton in 1844, but the formal opening of the completed church was not until May 1847, when St John’s College was firmly established (Ref. J. King Davis, p.43, History of St. John’s College.)
St Thomas’s was only a small church built of stone and scoria. The architect was Sampson Kempthorne, whose Early Gothic plans were but part of a much larger design. It would seem that the site was chosen as a central one for the district, which would in time justify a church of some size. The portion built was the chancel of this larger design. The stone arch linking it to the future transepts and the nave are clearly visible in surviving photographs I have seen, showing the western wall and the temporary porch, and they confirm the author’s personal observations of forty years ago. The buttresses, at what would later have been the intersection of the chancel and the transepts, were also placed with the extensions in mind. The Tamaki site’s proximity to St John’s College may have been accidental; if so, it was providential, because the church faithfully served the college in the early years of its establishment.
Every Sunday the little church was attended by the personnel of the College and many notable clerics preached from its pulpit. These included Bishops Selwyn, Patterson and Abraham, and archdeacon Lloyd.
The walls of the church were built of scoria rock quarried at Mt Wellington and transported in drays by the settlers of the district. Local sandstone was used for the dressed facings and the sills of windows and doors. The roof was of timber framing covered with shingles, transported by boat from Coromandel to Kohimarama.
The church served the district for only twelve years. During this period some settlement cracks appeared in the fabric and the soft sandstone facings were badly fritted away. In 1859, when a large crack appeared in the west wall, the church was closed as unsafe. The parish services were then transferred to St John’s College Chapel, thus seemingly returning thanks for the help St Thomas’s provided the college in the 1840s.
The failure of the stone walls in the early churches is variously attributed to the use of sea sand for the mortar, damage by gale, and an earthquake. All of these could cause damage, but in the author’s opinion the major weakness was owing to inadequate foundations. Unless these were carried down to a rock base, the notorious red clay of the Auckland district would move and disturb the fabric of such heavy buildings. It is significant that when a church was built on volcanic land, as was St James’ at Mangere, no such defect developed
St Thomas’s remained a ruin for about a century, well known to Aucklanders as an interesting relic of the early settlement. As no effort was ever made to preserve it as an historic place, it gradually disintegrated until in 1954 only the foundations remained. The present church, the gift of Sir William Stevenson, now serves the new parochial district of St Thomas’s Tamaki.
The old foundations are preserved and make a suitable memorial of the old church. More interest would be gained by restoring a detail such as a window or other feature, and a published record of the church’s history should be made available. The church authorities have suitably commemorated the people buried in the old churchyard and the Historic Places Trust is to erect a suitable plaque.