Historical Overview of the Sanctification of the Holy Myrrh in the Orthodox Church

(Photo by N. Manginas)

The Sanctification of the Holy Myrrh in the Orthodox Church: A Brief History [1]

In the Orthodox Church, Holy Myrrh is sanctified to be used in the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Chrism (Confirmation). Thus it becomes a visible means of the bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon those who are baptized.

In the early years of Christianity this bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon those who were baptized was done by the “laying of the hands” of the Apostles. “Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:14-17)

However, when the churches throughout the world had multiplied, and the number of those who had been baptized increased substantially, to make a mission similar to the one to Samaria was impossible. It was then that anointing by Holy Myrrh was introduced in the Church. This totally replaced the bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon those baptized by the “laying of hands”. The date on which this replacement was accomplished is not known. In any event, it is most likely that it took place during the apostolic times. “In lieu of the laying of hands, this was given by the Apostles to those baptized in Christ” (Simeon of Thessaloniki).

The use of Holy Myrrh was introduced into the Church mirroring the existing practice in the Old Testament. “Furthermore the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Also take for yourself aromatic spices, the flower of costly myrrh, five hundred shekels worth, and fragrant cinnamon, half as much, two hundred and fifty, and two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet smelling calamus, and five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. You shall make from these holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be an oil of holy anointing’. (Exodus 30, 22-25)

Throughout the ages, the following terms have also been used in referring to Holy Myrrh: oil of thanksgiving, oil of anointing, chrism, chrism of thanksgiving, heavenly chrism, mystical chrism, myrrh, divine myrrh, great myrrh, holy and great myrrh. Generally today, the term “Holy Myrrh” is in common usage.

The Holy Myrrh is prepared from oil and a variety of fragrant essences. These symbolize the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit which are received by the Christian who is being anointed. The most ancient particular references, concerning the materials for the myrrh, and for the preparation and chafing of the ingredients to be used, date from the 8th century. This is the earliest description we have, and it has been preserved to this day. In the Ecumenical Patriarchate an official register exists defining the various aromatics which are to be used and compose the Holy Myrrh; they number fifty seven. Details as to the manner of the sanctification of Holy Myrrh during the first centuries of Christianity are totally non existent.

The earliest relevant information is a reference by Hippolytos in his The Apostolic Tradition. Newer ordinances concerning the sanctification of Holy Myrrh are included in the published Great Efhologion, presently in use, and in the Efhologion of Goar. About the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century specific efforts were made at the Ecumenical Patriarchate to review the existing Order of the Service of Sanctification of Holy Myrrh in use until then. This was done with a view toward revision. Relevant Services were published during the years 1890, 1912 and 1960.

In accordance with the established rubrics for the sanctification of Holy Myrrh, and the order of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, on Palm Sunday, upon the completion of the Doxology, the Patriarch blesses the Archon Perfumer and his Deans. They are responsible for the chafing of the Holy Myrrh and are attired in full length white robes. The Patriarch then places upon the Archon Perfumer a silk apron.

On Great and Holy Monday, at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the Patriarch approaches the appropriately adorned “Kouvouklion” (ceremonial canopy) adjacent to the Most Venerable Patriarchal Church of Saint George the Great Martyr and Trophy Bearer. This is where the cauldrons for the chafing of the Holy Myrrh have been placed.

He then blesses the beginning of the series of sacred services for the sanctification of Holy Myrrh by celebrating the ritual for Holy Water. After this Sacred Service, he sprinkles the materials which have been prepared, the utensils to be used, and the cauldrons, with the Holy Water. Then, holding a lit candle, he ignites pieces of old holy icons mixed with kindling which have been placed under each cauldron. Continuing, the Patriarch reads certain chapters from the Holy Gospels. The reading of these passages from the New Testament is continued by the holy Hierarchs present, the Clergy of the Patriarchal Court, and other clergy. This order of readings continues all day throughout Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday.

On Great and Holy Tuesday, at the conclusion of the Divine

Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the Patriarch again approaches the holy Kouvouklion wherein the Lesser Supplication to the Theotokos is chanted, as he commemorates all who either with materials, with monetary gifts, or with their labor have contributed for the preparation of Holy Myrrh.

On Great and Holy Wednesday, at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the Patriarch once again approaches the holy Kouvouklion and after a brief prayer service pours rose oil, musk and the remainder of the fragrant oils into the cauldrons. By the end of the day the chafing of the Holy Myrrh and the preparation of all the relative remaining needs have been completed.

On Great and Holy Thursday, after the dismissal of the Service of Orthros, conducted in the Chapel of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the vesting of the Patriarch and the holy Hierarchs takes place. Then, they descend from the Patriarchal Manse to the Most Venerable Patriarchal Church proceeding in litany with the ringing of the bells. During this descent the Patriarch bears a small chrismatory (vial for Myrrh). The most senior of the Hierarchs bears a global vase of alabaster containing Presanctified Myrrh (that is to say, Holy Myrrh from a previous sanctification) while the second Hierarch in seniority carries one of not as yet sanctified Myrrh. The remainder of the holy Hierarchs bears small silver vessels containing Myrrh prepared for sanctification. There follow twenty four Archimandrites, in pairs, holding on either side, twelve great silver urns containing Myrrh which is to be sanctified.

Toward the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, and after the intonation “And may the mercies of our great God…” the Grand Archdeacon intones, “Let us be attentive!” The prayerful congregation then kneels while the Patriarch sanctifies the Holy Myrrh according to the Prescribed Order. Upon the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, in a procession identical in order as was that of the earlier descent from the Patriarchal Chapel to the Patriarchal Church, the Holy Myrrh is brought to the Patriarchal Repository of Holy Myrrh wherein the alabaster global vases and the other vessels containing Holy Myrrh are deposited. The dismissal of the Divine Liturgy then follows.

The sanctification of Holy Myrrh is celebrated only by bishops, never by presbyters. This tradition in the Church is steadfast and unanimous. With the passing of time however, whereas this tradition concerning the presbyters remains firm, it becomes modified for bishops. This common right of all bishops gradually devolved to the bishops of certain established Churches; to the Patriarchs, and finally only to the Ecumenical Patriarch. In other words, whereas each and every bishop has the hierarchical right to sanctify Holy Myrrh, canon law does not permit him. It appears there are three principal reasons which contributed to this curtailing of the right of bishops to sanctify Holy Myrrh. To begin with, it was given to the Primates of each ecclesiastical jurisdiction and then ultimately given to the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The first of these reasons is the rarity of the elements involved and the difficulty for each bishop to procure them for the preparation of the Holy Myrrh. Second, is the constantly increasing exaltation of the First, or Primate of the broader ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Third, is the prominent place, with the passing of centuries, which the Ecumenical Patriarchate received form the Patriarchates of the East, and the maternal bond of the Church of Constantinople with the Churches whose people received the Christian faith from its missionaries.

In reality, the concentration of this right to sanctify Holy Myrrh given to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not to be understood as a dependency or subordination of the other churches, but rather as a tangible and visible sign of the unity and the bond of the various Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches toward the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This is a necessary point, not for the exaltation of the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Orthodoxy, but for the existence of a perceptible indication of the unity of the totality of the local Orthodox Churches. That notwithstanding, today in the Orthodox Church the Patriarchates of Moscow, Belgrade, and Bucharest sanctify Holy Myrrh in addition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and perhaps even some other Orthodox Churches.

As was mentioned in the beginning, Holy Myrrh is mainly and primarily used in the celebration of the Sacrament of Chrism which is immediately administered upon Baptism. It constitutes however a particular and distinct sacrament apart from Baptism. According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the gifts and grace of the Holy Spirit are bestowed upon those baptized by the Sacrament of Chrism. They are thus strengthened in the Christian life in which they have been initiated through baptism, and are fortified in the struggles against sin and the attacks of evil, thereby increased, “…to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4, 13)

Holy Myrrh is also used for the reception of converts into the Orthodox Church and for those who have fallen away; for the dedication of Churches; the consecration of holy Altars; the consecration of holy Antimensions; and for certain other instances of ritual. In the past it was also used to anoint Orthodox Kings during their coronation.

[1] Prepared by His Eminence Metropolitan Paul of Sweden.




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