THE PREPARATION AND SANCTIFICATION OF HOLY MYRRH
(a historical account of the rite)
Priest Anatoly Trepatchko
The order of preparing and sanctifying Holy Myrrh, a rare and festive service, struck me greatly during my time as a seminary student. Presided over by a bishop and other clergy, the rite begins with the blessing of water, which is then used to sanctify the vessels required for the service. Oil and wine are cooked on a wood fire, kindled and fed by the hand of the bishop himself. The priests read the Holy Gospels while the oil and wine are stirred by the deacons. I, while not yet ordained to the priesthood, read from the Psalter when it was permitted.
The use of myrrh in the Holy Church dates back to the ancient times of the Apostles. In the book "Pastor" written by Hermas, father of the apostolic century, we already find a directive for the Mystery of Anointing. In the works of Saint Ironeious of Lyon, a pupil of the apostolic father, Saint Polycarp of Smirr, borne witness of the sign of the Holy Spirit through the anointing of oil. The outward sign of this mystery of the Holy Spirit is directly addressed by Origenes such that: “The gift of the grace of the Spirit is shown through the image of the oil” (per olei imaginem).
We can see that along with the ancient history of the use of myrrh, there is also the rite of its preparation. Saint Kirill of Jerusalem in his spiritual discourses speaks of the use of Myrrh and the blessing of it by the calling down of the Holy Spirit. “But take heed not to think” he councils “that this is merely oil, for as the Holy Bread of the Eucharist through the Grace of the Holy Spirit is not Bread merely, but the Body of Christ, so also this myrrh is not mere oil.” It is clear this rite could only be performed through the functions of priests and prayer. Saint Dionisius the Stylite speaks clearly on this also in his work “On Holy Rites of the Church”. On the topic of the usage of holy myrrh he explains the process of its preparation : “Completing the censing of the entire Church, the chanting of psalms and the reading of Holy Scripture, as in the rite of Holy Communion no catechumen shall remain. Then the first priest taking the myrrh places it on the Table of Oblation, beneath twelve coverings. After the triumphant singing of Praises to God on high by all the peoples, it is used in all required mannerments of the Church.”
In this way, we see, that by the account of Saint Dionisius the sanctified myrrh was prepared during the Liturgy of the Faithful, when the Church was without those “preparing” i.e. catechumens, those serving a time of repentance and the like. The Hierarch would bless the myrrh on the Holy Alter, at which time, it was guarded by the Liturgical Fans. The actual sanctification would be by the chanting of the clergy accompanied by the entire congregation, and the reading of the prayer by the Bishop. These general and specific instructions for the sanctification of Myrrh have remained unchanged to our time.
As to the question of the detailed composition of the myrrh itself, it seems, that as this was yet in the early days of the Church, this would not be prudent. It is doubtless that the ingredients would include aromatic substances, but their exact type, quantity, proportions, or mixing was not likely a fixed recipe at such an early time. Saint Dionisius briefly comments “the composition of the myrrh is a mixture of sweet smelling substances, having of itself a great aromatic quality.”
In the works of Saint Simeon of Salonsk (15th c.) "De sacro ritu saucti unguenti", we find a wonderful and valuable commentary on the preparation and sanctification of holy myrrh. Both were preformed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, first on Holy and Great Wednesday, and then on Holy and Great Thursday, during Passion Week. The order of these services and their accompanying chanting and prayer appear almost identical to those in contemporary use. Here is a factual side to this curious work of Saint Simeon.
“His Beatitude the Patriarch accompanied by the clergy goes to the place appointed for the preparation of the myrrh. Vested in his Priestly Stole and Amophorion, he begins with the doxology to the Triune God. Following are the prayers: O Heavenly King…. The Trisagion…. O Most Holy Trinity…. and Our Father. After the Patriarchs intonement of For Thine is The Kingdom … follows the troparion: Blessed is Christ our God and the troparion of the Dormition of the Theotokos: In Thy Birth-giving… after which the Patriarch pours the oil into the vessel in which it is to be rendered into myrrh, blessing it with his hand. The remainder of the oil is added by the concelebrating clergy. The Patriarch himself kindles the flame, pronounces the benediction and leaves. The myrrh is left to be attentively tended by one with experience. The myrrh is prepared on great Wednesday, when the sinful woman anointed Our Lords Feet and on the day when this Gospel is read. So the oil is prepared; the ingredients are readied. When the “cooking” of the oil is completed the Patriarch returns and, blessing the sweet smelling herbs, places them into the mixture, having given the prayer of leave taking, he again leaves. The stilled mixture is sanctified by the prayers of the Patriarch in the following way. The next day, on Holy and Great Thursday, during the Oblation, the myrrh is brought in a particular vessel called “the alabaster” in memory of the vessel which the sinful woman and the sister of Lazarus, Maria, brought oil to anoint the Head of Our Lord. This vessel is placed under a covering known as the “protector of the vessel” (skevofilakii). During the Liturgy, the Great Entrance is led by the “order keeper”, followed by the “bearer of Holies” then the first cleric with the myrrh in the Alabaster in his hands. Surrounding him are six deacons, bearing twelve fans, followed by the remaining deacons, and finally the rest of the procession. The Patriarch, approaching the Altar taking the Myrrh, places it on the Holy Alter to the left of the Paten. After the proclamation “And may the Mercies of our Great God…” and before the deacon intones “Having remembered all the Saints…” the Patriarch again approaches the Alter, and opening the vessel of myrrh blesses it threefold with his hand. Stepping back, and bowing his head he begins the prayer “Lord merciful and Father of Lights”. Completing this prayer the Patriarch intones: For Holy is our God…” and following “Peace be to all”, likewise the deacon: “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord,” and the Patriarch reads the second prayer: “Unto You God of all and King, each thankful heart is extended, for which all glory is given, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages”. By such action and prayer the myrrh on the Holy Alter is sanctified”.
In Holy Russia the use of Holy Myrrh is contemporary to the acceptance of Christianity. Saint Theodosius states, “we anoint the one being baptized with oil and myrrh.” Until the middle of the 15th century Russia did not have its own myrrh but used that received from Constantinople. This borne witness to a declaration by Metropolitan Photius to the clergy of Pskov, who were unfortunately using Latin myrrh that they, should cease this practice and rather Baptize by the directions of the Holy Gathers and use the Holy Myrrh from the “City of the King” (Constantinople), having received from there both our faith and the Holy Oil.
Once having received its autonomy from Constantinople, Russia with the blessing to now have Her own Patriarch of Russia, began at once to furbish all Her own Liturgical requirements, not the least of which was Her own reserve of Holy Myrrh. In 1631 there is a concrete account of the Myrrh being prepared in Moscow, undoubtedly, not for the first time. This account was in the form of a directive from the Czar Mikhail Fedorovitch to the Patriarch, His Holiness Philaret Nikitich dealing with the release of precious requirements for the myrrh including: fine topaz, cloves, iris florentian, asarum, juniperus turifera, fine honey, scorzonera hispanica and distilled rose spirits. For this purpose myrrha and cassia were issued from the personal patriarchal treasury. .
After this time detail of the preparation of myrrh became common in Moscow and by 1710 it was decided to do this every fourth year. The supply of the needed ingredients was often delegated to an experienced apothecarist. Due to the influence of personal preference in the “necessary” ingredients for the most fragrant myrrh, there was undoubtedly some variation, dependant on the apothecarist. Likewise the list of requirements varied in quantity; in 1667 53 ingredients were used, in 1681..64, in 1691..46, in 1703 and 1705..72, in 1710..68 and in 1721..59 fragrant ingredients.
The actual preparation of the Myrrh took place in Moscow, at the Patriarchal quarters, for which reason the site was dubbed the myrrh-preparatory. The rite began on Holy and Great Monday, and on Holy and Great Thursday. Before the Liturgy a procession took the myrrh to the Dormition Cathedral, where it was placed on the Altar. Often the Czar participated in this procession.
In 1675, the Moscow Cathedral, wishing the myrrh to be uniform, forbade diocesan Hierarchs from serving the rite in their own locations. All the myrrh for Russia was to be prepared in Moscow, and distributed without charge to the local Hierarchs as required with the words “freely you have received, freely ye shall give”. Some 50 years later the rite also began to be celebrated in Kiev at the Church in the refractory of the Caves Lavra.
The order of preparation of myrrh in the Russian Church follows a rite independent of that of Saint Simeon of Salonsk. The principle difference in the rites of preparing the myrrh and sanctifying it are not separate. Both are accomplished concurrently, so as when one is complete, so is the other. This requires the establishment of an oven, which is not within a church but rather in an appointed location “free from (pedestrian) traffic”. For the week of The Cross during Great Lent, the wine, wooden oil and the other necessities must already be at the site. On Lazarus’ Saturday the oils of sweet herbs are prepared, the abundance of which is in keeping with availability. For Palm Sunday, everything must be ready. On this day the All Night Vigil is served over the oven and the prepared ingredients. On the morning of Great Monday the preparation and sanctification services begin.
At the appointed place, the Bishop, Priest and Deacon vest. The oil and wine are combined and the chanting of appointed prayers begins. After the usual beginning and the 50th psalm, “Lord our God has Appeared Unto us” with the Troparion of Pentecost, ”Blessed is Christ our God”. For the Glory both Now and Ever the Troparion of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “In thy birth giving…”. After blessing the waters the Bishop reads the prayer “O Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son help me a sinner, in this work, begun by my hand that You Yourself shall complete it, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. The cannon of intercession to the Mother of God is sung, after which the Bishop reads the first “kneeling prayer” of Saint Basil the Great from the service of Pentecost, then he gives the Benediction, and blesses all the preparatory wares with Holy Water. The wood fire is then kindled. From this moment, the deacon and the priest alternate, presiding at the site, each fully vested during his appointed time. The priests read from the Gospel, readers from the Psalter, and the Deacons stir the oil and wine.
On Great Tuesday, following the same order, another “Moleibin” (service of intercession) is served. The Cannon to John the Forerunner is sung, written by Joseph the Songwritter.. Then,a prayer from the blessing of waters “Great art Thou O Lord…” is read, with the notable difference of substituting the word water with myrrh. The Epistle and Gospel from the blessing of waters service are read.
On Great Wednesday, wine, to replace that which has evaporated, is added as are all the required ingredients, save the herbs. In the evening the “cooking” is complete, and the mixture transferred to new vessels having been blessed with holy water. When the mixture has stilled the herbal oil is added. The now completed myrrh is again transferred to twelve vessels in memory of the twelve Apostles who alone were given the power to call down the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands on the baptized, a practice which was soon replaced with the anointing with myrrh. The vessels are then sealed. During this time the Bishop reads a prayer appointed for the consecration of Church buildings, altered appropriately. In Moscow, the vessels were placed on a table until Thursday, awaiting the synodal seal. In Kiev, the vessels remained on the Altar. In Moscow previously blessed vessels were used. The vessels were to be round, without handles, with a narrow and long neck. They were known as the “alabasters”. This was in keeping with the style of alabaster brought to Russia from Constantinople in the first centuries of Christianity in Russia. This alabaster was later transferred according to the all Russian Synod from Kiev to Moscow. The presanctified holy myrrh is stored in this alabaster, in this way having never depleting on Russian soil. .
The rite of sanctifying the oil takes place on Great Thursday. Prior to the Liturgy, yet fully vested, the Bishop and clergy go to the place of the myrrh. Placing the alabaster into the hands of the eldest priest,by ordination, and giving the other vessels to the priests by rank, the bishop leads a procession under the pealing of bells, and with the Cross, candles and Liturgical fans. The Troparion of Pentecost is sung on the way to the Cathedral, where the alabaster is placed on the table of oblation. The hours and Liturgy then begin.
At the Great Entrance during the Liturgy, the eldest Priest by ordination carries the alabaster, the others carry vessels also with myrrh accompanied by the deacons with fans, censors and candles. Reaching the Royal Doors the Hierarch takes the alabaster and places it on the Holy Altar, the other clergy place their vessels at the edges of the Holy Table. After the words “ And may the mercies of our Great God…”, the actual sanctification of the myrrh is completed. This occurs with the Royal Gates open, as in the consecration of the Holy Gifts during a hierarchical Liturgy. The deacons taking their places on the ambo do not begin the usual litany, but stand silent while the Bishop opens each of the vessels and thrice blesses each. The Proto-deacon intones “wisdom”, the second deacon “let us pray to The Lord” and all in the Altar reply “Lord have Mercy” and the bishop reads the prayer of sanctification: “Lord Merciful and Father of Lights”, in which he asks for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the myrrh, that the Lord may instill spiritual protection and joyful blessing, through anointing, of soul and body. After this prayer the bishop extends to all the hope of “peace be unto you”, the deacon calls for heads to be bowed, and the people sing; “to Thee O Lord”, and the bishop reads secretly the prayer: “Unto Thee God of all and King…” in which he thanks the Lord for granting him to be a participant of this Holy Rite. Following this the hierarch again blesses each vessel of myrrh and closes it while the deacon begins the litany: “Having commemorated….” On completion of the Liturgy the clergy carry the myrrh filled vessels to the “place of safe keeping the newly blessed myrrh” with the singing of the 44th Psalm “My heart hath poured forth a good work….” Here a few drops of the sanctified oil of the alabaster are poured into each of the vessels, and replaced into the alabaster is blessed oil, so that this holy reservoir would always remain. From here the myrrh is distributed to the diocese as required.
The holy myrrh is used for the following: 1) for the mystery of chrismation; 2) for the consecration of a new church, by anointing the altar table, antimens, and walls; 3)or the coronation of a czar.