The Sanctification of the Holy Myrrh at the Ecumenical Patriarchate
Apr 12, 2012
CONSTANTINOPLE – The Sanctification of the Holy Myrrh (the Chrism Oil used in the Orthodox Church for the Sacrament of Confirmation) took place this Holy Week at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Phanar, with His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presiding and the participation of approximately 55 Orthodox Hierarchs from around the world, including representatives from the Senior Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the Patriarchate of Serbia, the Autocephalous Churches of Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and the Czech Lands and Slovakia.
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Holy Altar of the Patriarchal Church of St. George sanctifies the Holy Myrrh. Behind him, participating in the Sanctification with other Hierarchs is His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America. (photo © D. Panagos/GOA)
It was an auspicious celebration that takes place approximately once every ten years, when the reserve of Holy Myrrh nears depletion. This was the third time Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has presided over the sanctification celebrations. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America traveled to Constantinople and participated in the events.
Holy Myrrh is sanctified to be used in the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Chrism (Confirmation), one of the Seven Sacraments. It is a visible means of the bestowing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon those who are baptized. The Ecumenical Patriarchate distributes the Holy Myrrh to the Orthodox Churches throughout the world.
The process that led to the sanctification of the Holy Myrrh began well in advance of Holy Week when the Ecumenical Patriarch informed the Primates of Orthodox Churches throughout the world and extended to them, and other Hierarchs, an invitation to attend and participate. A request was also made to many of them asking for a specific offering of a precious oil or element, which is found in their Eparchy and is mandated for inclusion in the preparation of the Holy Myrrh.
On Palm Sunday, upon the completion of the Doxology, the Ecumenical Patriarch blessed the Archon Perfumer George Savits (Archon Myrepsos) and his Deans (Myrepsoi) charging them with the responsibility for the chafing of the Holy Myrrh, They put on full length white coats and the Patriarch then placed upon the Archon Perfumer a silk apron. And a cross on all of them.
On Holy Monday, at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, the Patriarch approached the adorned “Kouvouklion” (ceremonial canopy) which is adjacent to the Patriarchal Church of Saint George. This is where the cauldrons for the chafing of the Holy Myrrh were placed. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew blessed the beginning of the series of sacred services for the sanctification of Holy Myrrh by holding the service of Aghiasmos (the ritual for Holy Water.) He then sprinkled the materials which had been prepared, the utensils to be used, and the cauldrons, with the Holy Water. Holding the triple archieratical lit candles, he ignited pieces of old holy icons mixed with kindling which had been placed under each cauldron. Continuing, the Patriarch read certain chapters from the Holy Gospels. The reading of these passages from the New Testament continued by other Hierarchs present, the Clergy of the Patriarchal Court, and other clergy. This order of readings continued all day throughout Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday.
On Holy Tuesday, at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the Patriarch entered the holy Kouvouklion again as the Lesser Supplication to the Theotokos was chanted, He commemorated all who either with materials, with monetary gifts, or with their labor have contributed for the preparation of Holy Myrrh.
On Holy Wednesday, at the conclusion of the Presanctified Divine Liturgy, His All Holiness once again entered the holy Kouvouklion and after a brief prayer service poured 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 had been completed and it was transferred by the Perfumers to large silver vases and small chrismatories.
The Holy Myrrh is prepared from fifty seven ingredients; olive oil and a variety of fragrant oils, essences and aromatics according to an official register of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. 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.
On Holy Thursday, after the dismissal of the Service of Orthros, conducted in the Chapel of Saint Andrew the Apostle and the vesting of the Patriarch and the Hierarchs, they descended from the Patriarchal Manse to the Patriarchal Church of St. George proceeding in litany with the ringing of the bells. His All Holiness was holding a small silver chrismatory (vial for Myrrh) and the most senior of the Hierarchs was holding a global vase of alabaster containing Pre-sanctified Myrrh, from the previous sanctification in 2002, while the second Hierarch in seniority carried one with new not as yet sanctified Myrrh. The remainder of the Hierarchs bore small silver vessels containing Myrrh prepared for sanctification. Twenty four Archimandrites, followed the procession in pairs, holding on either side, twelve great silver urns containing Myrrh to be sanctified.
Toward the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and as the congregation knelt down in prayer, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sanctified the Holy Myrrh according to the prescribed order. Following the Divine Liturgy, a procession identical in order to the earlier one was formed. The Hierarchs, the representatives of the Autocephalous Churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch in the center, lined for a photograph followed by the dismissal of the Divine Liturgy. The alabaster global vases and the other silver vessels containing Holy Myrrh were deposited in the Patriarchal Repository of Holy Myrrh (Myrofylakion).
This year the following Metropolitans of the Ecumenical Throne and lay people were assigned to comprise the body of those responsible for all the appropriate preparations: Metropolitan Athanasios of the Senior See of Chalcedon was appointed to preside. Metropolitan Cyril of Imvros and Tenedos, Metropolitan Dimitrios of Sevasteia, Metropolitan Theoliptos of Iconium and the Grand Archimandrite Athenagoras as secretary, were the ranking clergy appointed. The lay people appointed were Stefanos Bairamoglou, George Savits (Archon Myrepsos), Joseph Constantinides, Christos Hamhougias, Theodore Messinas, Aris Tsokonas, Constantine Agiannides, and Catherine Malita.
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.
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 Emperors during their coronation.
Parts of the information above were taken from the publication of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Holy Myrrh in the Orthodox Church, © Ecumenical Patriarchate, Istanbul, 2012.
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