Dear Brothers and sisters,
Some of the earliest and longest lasting Christian communities can be found in the forests of northern Ethiopia. The Bible itself tells the story of an Ethiopian man who meets Philip, one of Jesus‟ disciples and, after hearing all about Jesus, immediately asks to be baptised. As far back as the 4th Century these communities built their brightly coloured churches in the forest and from the forest. They used the wood to build, the earth to render, the bark and leaves and berries to decorate, and, so the saying goes, the surrounding forest to "clothe their churches in the Garden of Eden‟. Some of these churches are a thousand years old, and the forests could be twice that.
Sadly intensive farming and the effects of climate change mean that over the past century most of the Ethiopian forests have disappeared, but not all of it. The forests around the Churches have been protected and are vital lifelines for both biodiversity and spiritual refreshment. The images of these ancient "Church Forests‟ are stark and powerful, but they are also hopeful. Scientists call these "refugia‟, places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From these small pockets of sanctuary entire forests can re-emerge.
We are now a year into this pandemic, and our lives have had to find
their own forms of "refugia‟. We have found new ways of working, of
worshipping, of connecting, of living, to sustain us through this time
of crisis. For many of us this has meant that our worlds, like those
Ethiopian forests, have shrunk. And now, as we begin to contemplate
re-emergence, we may wonder whether the world will ever be the same again, whether the forest will ever return.
One of the metaphors which Jesus used to talk about hope and resurrection was that of a seed planted in the ground. It may look dead and dormant, but it is in fact its own little "refugia‟, clinging on to life and hope and ready to spring back when the time is right. It is fitting that after a year of great disturbance, when our Church buildings have been closed more than they have been open, we hope to re-open church for worship on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week and the preparation for Christ's trial, death and then glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday, Easter is when we remember and celebrate the power of hope and life over darkness and death.
The forests of Northern Ethiopia will one day return and those barren fields will be filled with life once more, and so will our churches, and so will we.
Your brother in Christ,