Patriarch Bartholomew announced that this year, 2002, the Holy Chrism will once again be consecrated on Holy Thursday in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.† The Holy Chrism is consecrated by the Ecumenical Patriarch for use in holy churches for the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Chrismation.† The sacrament of Holy Chrismation is the visible sign of the transmission of gifts of the Holy Spirit upon those entering Orthodoxy.† The Holy Chrism is thus a bond that unites all true Orthodox Christians throughout the world.

The Orthodox public is unfortunately not generally informed about the significance, history, and preparation of the Holy Chrism. Accordingly, I thought it would be useful to translate into English the present informative pamphlet regarding the Holy Chrism for the benefit of the Orthodox people. For reference, the pamphlet, by Pavlos Menesoglou, (Athens: Apostolike Diakonia, 1992), pp. 13-19, summarizes material from his book, The Holy Chrism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (in Greek), (Thessalonike: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1972), p. 271.† This book also has a very good bibliography. 

~ Father George C. Papademetriou

The Sanctification of the Holy Chrism

In the Orthodox Church, the Holy Chrism is sanctified for use in the celebration of the sacrament of Chrismation.† It is a visible sign of the transmission of gifts of the Holy Spirit to those who are baptized.

During the early years of Christianity, the transmission of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the baptized were given by the Apostles through the "laying of hands." It I stated in the Scriptures that, "Now when the Apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands upon them and they received the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:14‑17, R.S.V.)

When the Church spread throughout the world and the number of the baptized was greatly increased, it was not possible to continue the practice of Samaria. Consequently, the Apostles introduced the use of the sanctified Chrism.† The Holy Chrism was sanctified by the Apostles and was continued thereafter by the bishops through the Apostolic Succession. The "laying on of hands" was completely replaced by the Holy Chrism to transmit gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The use of the Holy Chrism was introduced to the Christian Church from the existing Old Testament practice. It is stated that, "The Lord said to Moses, 'Take the finest spices ‑‑ 12 pounds of liquid myrrh, 6 pounds of sweet‑smelling cinnamon, 6 pounds of sweet cane, and 12 pounds of cassia (all weighted according to official standard). Add one gallon of olive oil, and make a sacred anointing oil, mixed like perfume.''' (Exodus 30:22‑25)

Over the years of its existence, the Holy Chrism has been known by many names, such as "oil," "oil of Thanksgiving," "oil of anointing," "Chrism," "Chrism of thanksgiving," "Chrism from heavens," "mystical Chrism," "myrrh," "divine myrrh," "mystical myrrh," "great myrrh," and "holy and great myrrh."† Today, the terms generally used are "Holy Myrrh" or "Holy Chrism."

The Holy Chrism is prepared from oil and another fragrant essences, which symbolize the variety of gifts of the Holy Spirit that the chrismated Christian receives. The most ancient list of materials and the aforementioned information "concerning the materials of the myrrh," which are still used today, date from the eighth century C.E.†† This list includes the materials used for the preparation and making of the Holy Chrism. At the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, there is an official ìList of kinds of fragrances, from which the Holy Chrism is made," which includes 57 kinds of elements.

Information on how Holy Chrism was sanctified during the first centuries of Christianity is not available. The oldest reference is in The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytos. Later, directions concerning the sanctification of the Holy Chrism were included in the Great Prayer Book (Mega Euchologion) and Goar's Euchologion. Constantinople presently uses this course in the preparation of the Holy Chrism.† During the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the present [twentieth] century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate made a special effort to revise carefully the prayer book containing the order and service of sanctification of the Holy Chrism.† The new revised edition was published for official use at the Ecumenical Throne.† Such services were published in 1890, 1912, and 1960.

In accordance with the rubrics followed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the sanctification of the Holy Chrism takes place in the following order:

After the doxology on Palm Sunday, the Patriarch blesses the Archon of the Myrrh who, along with the other Archons, work with him to make the Holy Chrism. They wear a white tunic reaching to the ground. After blessing the Archon of the Myrrh, the Patriarch then places a towel on him.

The next day, on Holy and Great Monday, after the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the Patriarch enters the Patriarchal Church of the Great Myrrh, Saint George, where an appropriately decorated sepulched and the boilers for the Holy Chrism are located. The Patriarch then blesses the beginning of the cycle of the sanctification of the Holy Chrism with a special holy service. Following the blessing, he sprinkles holy water on the prepared materials, the utensils to be used, and the copper boilers. Then, holding a lighted candle, he touches each boiler, placing pieces of old charred holy icons in them. Then the Patriarch reads chapters from the Holy Gospel. The readings of the lessons (pericopes) from the New Testament are then continued by those present, including hierarchs, clergy from the Patriarchate, as well as visiting clergy. This order of readings continues all day on Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday.

On Holy and Great Tuesday, after the Divine Liturgy, a small supplication canon to the Theotokos is sung at the holy sepulcher. Prayers are offered for those who contributed material, money, and effort to prepare the Holy Chrism.

On Holy and Great Wednesday, after the Divine Liturgy of the Pre‑sanctified gifts, the Patriarch once again comes to the holy sepulcher and, after a brief service, places in the boilers rose oil, musk, and other sweet‑smelling oil. On this day, all preparations for making the Holy Chrism are completed.

On Holy and Great Thursday, after Matins (Orthros) at the Patriarchal chapel of Saint Andrew and after the complete vesting of the Patriarch and the other hierarchs, the procession from the Patriarchal Palace to the Patriarchal Church begins. The bells ring during the entire procession. During the procession, the Patriarch holds the small myrrh container.† The first in order of the hierarchs holds an alabaster containing pre‑sanctified Chrism.† The second in order of the hierarchs holds an alabaster containing unsanctified Chrism.† The other hierarchs hold small silver vases containing Chrism from the prepared materials to be sanctified. Twenty‑four archimandrites hold (one on each side) 12 silver containers filled with the Chrism to be sanctified.† During the Divine Liturgy, at the appointed time after the exclamation: "And may the mercy of our Great Lord," the Grand Archimandrite exclaims, "Let us attend."† The congregation kneels, and the Patriarch sanctifies the Holy Chrism according to the rubrics. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the sanctified Holy Chrism is transferred from the church to the Patriarchal myrrh center in reverse order according to the order of the Procession. It is in the Patriarchal myrrh center that the alabasters and the containers that contain the Holy Chrism are deposited. Followingthis transfer, the dismissal of the Divine Liturgy takes place.

During the early centuries of Christianity, a firm tradition existed in the Church in which the Holy Chrism was sanctified only by the bishops of the Church and not by the presbyters (priests). At that time, there were no distinctions among bishops, that is among bishops of dioceses and metropolitanate bishops of greater church districts. As the years passed, however, the common right of all bishops was eventually transferred to the bishops of churches with greater status, that is, to the Patriarchs, and finally to the Ecumenical Patriarch, who today is able to transmit this right to the heads of local Orthodox churches. In other words, even though each bishop has the right to sanctify the Holy Chrism by his status as bishop, he is not permitted by canon law to do so. It appears that there are three reasons that restrict the right of sanctifying the Holy Chrism to the Ecumenical Patriarch. These reasons include: a) the scarcity of the materials and the difficulty for each bishop to prepare the Holy Chrism, b) the constant increase of dependence of the diocese on the head of the greater church and district, and c) the special position that the Ecumenical Patriarchate received through the centuries in relation to the other patriarchates of the East and that expresses the spiritual bond between the Church of Constantinople and the local churches of the people who received the Christian faith from its missionaries.

In reality, this exclusive right to sanctify the Holy Chrism of the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not mean that local churches are dependent and subordinate to Constantinople. This act of receiving the Holy Chrism from the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a tangible and visible sign of the amity and bond of local churches, patriarchates, and autocephalous churches with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.† It is a necessary sign, not a sign of superiority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church, but an existing visible sign of unity among the cluster of local Orthodox churches. Nevertheless, in the Orthodox Church, the Holy Chrism, in addition to being sanctified in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is sanctified in the contemporary patriarchates of Moscow, Belgrade, and Bucharest.

As was stated earlier, Holy Chrism is used mainly in the celebration of the sacrament of Chrismation, which takes place immediately following the sacrament of Baptism. It is, however, a separate, distinct sacrament from Baptism. According to Orthodox Church readings, through the administration of the sacrament of Chrismation, the baptized receive gifts (charismata) that are transmitted to them by the Holy Spirit.† Such gifts also help the baptized live a life in Christ, which they enter through baptism, and equip them in their struggle against sin and the attacks of evil.† Through the seal of Chrismation, the baptized attain "mature manhood, to the measure of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:13 R.S.V.)

The Holy Chrism is also used to chrismate the heterodox (non‑Orthodox) joining the Church, and to chrismate those fallen away from the Orthodox Faith and who are returning to the Orthodox Church.† In addition, it is also used to consecrate holy churches, altar tables, objects, and utensils, and for other sacred ceremonial circumstances. In past centuries, it was also used to anoint the Orthodox kings during their crowning.

The following is a list of dates and Patriarchs during the twentieth century when the Holy Chrism was sanctified in the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

  • 1903, Patriarch Joachim III
  • 1912, Patriarch Joachim III
  • 1928, Patriarch Basileios III
  • 1939, Patriarch Benjamin I
  • 1951,Patriarch Athenagoras I
  • 1960, Patriarch Athenagoras I
  • 1973, Patriarch Demetrios 1
  • 1983, Patriarch Demetrios 1
  • 1992, Patriarch Bartholomew