CONSTANTINOPLE – Holy Myrrh or Chrism is the visible sign of the transmission of the Holy Spirit upon members of the Church. And it’s a tangible bond that unites all Orthodox Christians worldwide and through time. But where does it come from? Who makes it? How? And from what materials?
The exclusive right to prepare and sanctify Holy Myrrh belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Like Holy Myrrh itself, this prerogative is a tangible and visible sign of the Ecumenical nature of the Patriarchate of Constantinople around which global Orthodox unity is centered. In the words of Fordham University’s Prof. George Demacopoulos, “only the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople can represent and symbolize global Orthodoxy. Most of the other leaders represent national variants within the Orthodox world.”
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s procession from the Patriarchal Church of Saint George to the “Canopy (Κουβούκλιοv) of preparation of the Holy Myrrh” following the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Monday April 18, 2022, officially marked the beginning of the most recent preparation of Holy Chrism. The last time it occurred was 2012. After Pascha, it will be distributed to the global Orthodox Christian community.
His All Holiness began the rite with an Agiasmos during which he sanctified the brilliant copper boilers and instruments of preparation with water while reciting the appointed ancient prayers for the Rite of Preparation of the Holy Myrrh. Into the sanctified boilers, he mingled various ingredients in the same measure as centuries of Ecumenical Patriarchs who went before him have done—oil, wine, fine fragrant natural materials, and a colorful palate of flower petals. After adding the necessary ingredients, he lit the flames to start the “baking” process.
The ritual process of the Holy Myrrh takes place “as needed,” roughly once each decade. It begins on Holy Monday at Phanar, in the Canopy (Κουβούκλιοv) at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A total of 57 precious and rare aromatic materials, which come from the ends of the earth and symbolize the variety of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are used to prepare the Holy Myrrh. The consecrated aromatic oil is used in the Eastern Orthodox Church during the sacrament of initiation into the church.
According to tradition, on Palm Sunday the Ecumenical Patriarch confers gilded service crosses upon the myrrh-makers—the “Deanery of Perfumers”(Κοσμήτορες Μυρεψοί), marking their ministry as those who will prepare the Holy Myrrh. This year, ten myrrh-bearers will stir 57 aromatic ingredients of plant and animal origin, in the copper boilers, which were donated to the Patriarchate in 1807 by the silversmiths (σαράφηδες) of The City.
The list of the 57 ingredients and the directions for the preparation of Holy Myrrh is found in the official Patriarchal Catalog compiled in 1890, which is still in use today. The ancient formula is said to be inspired by the Hebrew prophets and Patriarchs, patterned after the anointing oil described in Exodus 30:22–33. Among the ingredients of Holy Myrrh are virgin olive oil, dry red wine and rose oil, which comes from Bulgaria and is customarily a gift of the Patriarchate of Bulgaria. Two extremely rare (and costly) animal materials, amber gris and moschos, are also called for. Amber gris is derived from indigestible gastric contents eliminated by a whale—in other words, whale vomit. Moschos comes from a gland found in a particular species of male deer.
The latter ingredients are exceedingly rare, and in fact were not procured this year. Luckily there was a stock of amber gris leftover from the previous preparation in 2012. One might be inclined to question why a rather revolting material like amber gris is necessary in the first place. According to the Deanery, when this material is excreted from the whale’s stomach, it floats on the surface of the sea. During that time the salt and the temperature of the sun act as a catalyst for an internal chemical reaction to occur that gives the floating vomit a pleasing aroma. But the main role of the substance is not aromatic. Rather, it gives the myrrh the ability to attach onto human skin, allowing the aroma of the perfume to last for several hours. If found, it is exceptionally expensive. For future preparations, it is possible that a substitute with the same required properties will be used, the team explained. The other rare animal substance, moschos, could also not be procured. This is because the species of deer that it comes from, native to Tibet, is an endangered species. Interestingly, a dealer of moschos was found selling it for $250 a gram. The recipe calls for 50 grams of moschos. A plant substitute was used instead.
Dr. George Savvits, a pharmacist, is head of the Deanery and presides over the process as the “Lord Perfumer of the Great Church of Christ” (Άρχοντος Μυρεψού της Μεγάλης του Χριστού Εκκλησίας). Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew awarded him this distinction in November 2021. In this role, he is responsible for the coordination, preparation, and baking of the Holy Myrrh. “Preparations began around the beginning of March this year, with the ordering of the ingredients that will be used,” Mr. Savvits said.
Savvits first took part in the baking of the Holy Myrrh in 1973 as a member of the Deanery of Perfumers, and assisted in the process in 1992, 2002 and 2012. This year he replaces the previous Archon Myrepsos, Prodromos Thanasoglou, who was unable to perform his duties due to his advanced age.
In Byzantium, the rite was overseen by physicians and pharmacists. The doctors practiced “their healing work in the monasteries’ hospitals or in their private clinics”, while the pharmacists prepared and distributed various medicines, aromatic substances and the like in perfumeries. Today, the Deanery of Perfumers consists of pharmacists and chemists.
The Patriarchal Typikon (something of a rulebook that outlines the way various aspects of the institution function) dictates the order of preparation. On Holy Monday, following the Divine Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, the Ecumencial Patriarch, sprinkles the materials and utensils with holy water, and lights the fire in the boilers. Old church documents are used to light the fire, as well as damaged books and icons that have no historical or artistic value. Of course, these items are evaluated by specialists in history and ecclesiastical art prior to being used to create the Myrrh.
Throughout the preparation process from Holy Monday to Holy Wednesday, the Patriarch, metropolitans and clergy alternate in reading aloud from sacred texts, chapters of the Gospel and passages of the New Testament, while clergy and laity from around the world assist in stirring the myrrh.
The rite of preparation is as much a spiritual expression as it is a science. Amid prayer and pilgrimage pervading the penitential air of Holy and Great Week at the Phanar, the Deanery undertakes its responsibility with meticulous exactitude. “There are seven heated copper containers (boilers/cauldrons) used for the baking of Holy Myrrh. Once the proper temperature is reached and remains constant, contents is added to the boilers. First, we put the olive oil and then the wine and then we put, in order: the flower water, the rose water and the various plant extracts, which are stirred over time. with traditional wooden spoons. This is what the Deans do. The custom of the participation of the people is for the blessing. It is limited–they assist in stirring by turning the ladle a few of times.
While stirring, the temperature is monitored with a thermometer because it should not exceed some degrees, because there is a risk of damaging the materials if they boil. Late in the afternoon the stirring stops and the fire almost goes out. The same process continues Holy Tuesday. The Patriarch comes again to the Canopy, prays the small Canon of the Virgin and after the commemorations throws the petals of the season in the boilers, blessing Holy Myrrh. On Holy Tuesday, the heating in the boilers ceases until the morning of Holy Wednesday, until it cools down sufficiently (approximately 25-30 degrees Celsius).
On Holy Wednesday, after the contents of the boilers have cooled and reached 25-30 degrees, the essential oils are added. The essential oils are placed after cooling, because if heated, they evaporate. The rose oil, which is the main aromatic ingredient of Myrrh, is added by the Patriarch on Holy Wednesday. Immediately after this process of adding, mixing and stirring with the wooden spoons of the mixture, the process of filtration begins. After the filtration, the Holy Myrrh is placed in silver amphorae. On Holy Thursday the Myrrh during the Divine Liturgy it is carried in the Great Entrance and placed upon the altar and is consecrated in the Patriarchal Church of Saint George. After this the containers of Holy Myrrh are processed in by priests in pairs to the Myrofilakion—the place where the myrrh is kept,” the Lord Perfumer explained in a detailed description of the process.
Though Holy Myrrh is properly confected by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the contemporary patriarchates of Moscow, Belgrade, and Bucharest nevertheless create their own. After it has been prepared and stored in the Patriarchal Monastery of St. George’s chapel of St. Andrew for safekeeping, it is distributed upon request to the Orthodox Dioceses worldwide for use in the sacrament of Chrismation and in the consecration of Altar Tables. In the past, when there were Orthodox kings and emperors, it was used during coronation ceremonies.