In the Ethiopian Orthodox Calendar, January 7th is Gena or Christmas and January 19th is Timkat or Epiphany. As in Western Christianity, the days after Christmas (the “12 days”) are considered holy. But unlike in the West where Epiphany symbolizes the Magi’s visit to baby Jesus, the Eastern Churches celebrate it as Christ’s baptism.
For Orthodox Ethiopians, Timkat is the most important religious holiday of the year and includes three days of festivities including a ritual baptism where people are delightedly splashed by or immersed in water, renewing their faith and lives. Families dress in their finest clothes to dance and sing while, in ceremonial processions, priests carry on their heads replicas of the tabot or holy grail (n.b. a tabot cannot be viewed by unsanctified eyes, thus is hidden by a vibrantly colored cloth called, drumroll… sebene — which also symbolizes a halo).
Although (or maybe because) I don’t formally celebrate the Eastern or Western versions of Christmas or Epiphany, I have been reflecting on our loss of holy days.
Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia (2014)
Last week, a friend was lamenting to me that they did not get enough work done over the holidays. This person did not have deadlines they would miss or anyone to disappoint by taking a week (or even two) off, just an inner critic relentlessly critiquing their inadequate output. How many of us feel like that about our vacations, weekends, evenings, daily commute, the last five minutes?
The word holiday comes from the Old English halig “holy” + dæg “day.” Holy comes from the same root as “whole.” Holidays/Holy Days move us out of our daily routines and ruts and remind us what all wisdom traditions teach — that we are whole and everything is whole, because all is one. In our anxiety and fear and stress of daily life (and relentless assaults of this administration) we forget this truth — the truth that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny… the inter-related structure of reality” — what some might call the sacred or divine but what even skeptics can recognize as the great mystery.
Epiphany can refer to any illuminating discovery or insight, but its root meaning is the manifestation of divinity. Isn’t that what true insights feel like? Moments of wonder and awe, of sacred (re)connections to that single garment of destiny. These moments don’t require ceremonial processions (though those can be beautiful). Epiphany can be inspired by anything — stillness, movement, nature, art, conversation, contemplation.
Profound epiphanies rarely arise when we are rushed or overwhelmed, when we do not feel whole. But even those of us with a slower life or even a meditation practice, how often do we feel connected to what is whole or holy? Is our meditation practice simply another thing on our to do list? Has practice becomes a task? Are retreats obligations? Is awakening a project? In our attempt to be balanced, healthy, good, better, have we lost connection to what is essential, what is mysterious?
but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
Holy Days are prescribed in most cultures and spiritual traditions. In Buddhism there are Uposatha or Moon Days. Often occurring two to ten times a month, in many Buddhist cultures they are observed on the full, new and quarter moons (conveniently about once a week). These days offer lay people and monastics designated time to immerse more fully in their practice, refraining from many normal activities, connection to the cosmic rhythm. The Abrahamic traditions have the sabbath, ramadan, saints’ days, high holy days, lent. Holy days are designated for rest (something we are most definitely lacking in contemporary culture) but not rest that is only about not working. This is rest that reconnects us to ritual and reminders that our separation is illusory, that there is something more essential than our current unease, our latest angst. Through reflection, prayer, readings, sermons and celebration, we let go our burdens and are renewed into our deepest aspirations for connection and love.
Holy days invite us to remember what is essential — kindness, compassion, joy, hope — to renew our capacity for touching these in any moment.
This year, in my life, I am choosing to observe more holy days and imbue moments throughout every day with wholeness. My greatest aspiration is to make each moment holy.