The monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Wilderness of Scetis, present-day Wadi Natroun in Egypt’s Western Desert, today witnessed a huge procession of 92 metropolitans and bishops in their white clerical vestments march from the ancient monastery church to the modern Anba Bishoi cathedral in the monastery. The 92 are the members of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod; they marched carrying vessels that included the ingredients needed to make the Holy Myron Oil, the Chrism Oil, to the chiming of the bells and to praises sung by the priests and deacons who joined the procession. At the head of the procession was Pope Tawadros II.
The march marked the beginning of the numerous steps followed to make a new batch of the Myron oil, the 39th batch in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Inside the cathedral, a row of huge stainless steel crucibles had been placed in the nave near the iconostatis. Between the crucibles on the right that would carry the Myron oil and those on the left that would carry the Ghalilaon Oil was a stand on which was placed a large number of bottles of pure olive oil produced by the neighbouring al-Baramos Monastery. Once the procession reached the cathedral, the prelates left the vessels carrying the Myron Oil ingredients on a mounting step stand that stood on the left of the sanctuary door.
A light to the heart
Pope Tawadros said a prayer of thanksgiving then began the first step of cooking the oil, which involved mixing the ingredients with the pure olive oil and stirring continuously. The bishops and priests not taking part in the cooking process read parts of the Holy Bible that pertained to holy oil: they read chapters from the Acts and the Epistles of St John in the New Testament; also chapters from the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah in the Old Testament. The rituals extended for more than three hours. The crucibles remained in the nave till after Midnight Praise when they were moved into the sanctuary and placed in the niche that faces the altar, known by the Copts as the Bosom of the Father. Pope Tawadros prayed: “We ask you, our Master and Lover of Mankind, to send Your Holy Spirit to this oil and bless it according to your bountiful kindness; grant it the sublime work that is Yours, the Healer, so that it would be a guard for the souls and bodies and spirits of your Orthodox servants, and a light to their hearts.” Everyone present replied in unison: “Lord, have mercy.”
According to tradition, the crucibles will remain in place till Easter Monday, Shamm al-Nesssim, when the Pope will place the ‘yeast’ into Myron Oil.
They are then left standing in front of the altar throughout the Khamasseen, the fifty days following Easter that end with the Pentecost, when the Myron Oil is finally stored in flasks and sent to the various bishoprics.
The preparation or ‘cooking’ of the Holy Myron, the Chrism Oil, used in the Myron Sacrament, also known as the Holy Anointment or the Sacrament of Confirmation is an event which replicates one of the oldest and most revered traditions of the Church, and which takes place ever so often in the Coptic Orthodox Church. The word ‘Myron’ is a Greek word which means ‘ointment’ or ‘fragrant perfume’. Anointment with Myron grants the seal of the Holy Spirit. The sacrament is granted to the baptised directly after baptism, through anointment with 36 crosses. The baptised then becomes a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’.
Myron Oil is also used to consecrate new churches, altars, altar utensils, and icons.
Traditionally, Myron is prepared during Lent before Passion Week, and is completed on Shamm al-Nessim, Easter Monday, which should see the addition of the ‘yeast’ to the oil.
Tradition has it that the first who made the Myron were the Apostles from the fragrant oils which had been used for the burial of Jesus Christ and the sweet-smelling spices the women had brought to anoint the body of Jesus, but discovered He was risen from the dead.
When St Mark headed to Alexandria, he took with him some of the Myron made by the Apostles and used it in the Sacrament of the Chrism. The tradition was handed on to the successive patriarchs until Pope Athanasius (AD 298 – 373) who decided to remake the Myron in Alexandria. The original oil was, and still is today, used as ‘yeast’.
25 popes cooked Myron
Throughout the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, 25 popes made the Myron; some of them more than once. Among them were Pope Kyrillos VI who was patriarch from 1959 to 1971 and has been recently canonised, and Pope Shenouda III (patriarch in 1971 – 2012) who prepared it seven times during his papacy. The growing Coptic Orthodox congregation inside and outside Egypt generates more demand on the Myron, hence the need for preparing it more frequently and keeping the Church well-stocked on the holy oil.
In 2014, Pope Tawadros II generated quite a stir when he announced the Church would make use of modern industry and technology to simplify the cooking of the Myron. The Pope then told Watani “We have used modern technology to attain the utmost degree of purity in the oil, and at the same time to escape some of the arduous processes necessary for the Myron preparation in past times.
“The ingredients needed,” the Pope explained, “comprise 27 special oils and sweet spices mentioned in the book of Exodus and in the Psalms. Among them are the oils of cloves, sandalwood, liquid amber, and balsam. Some of the 27 ingredients are found in Egypt and some are imported from abroad while the pure olive oil comes from the produce of the Baramous Monastery in the Western Desert. And because several of the ingredients are solid, they needed to be soaked or ground before the mixing and stirring; this process is what has been commonly denoted as ‘cooking’, a popular description but no Church term. The mixture of aromatic oils is then mixed with pure olive oil. Once the aromatic and essential oils are extracted to make Myron, we make the holy oil of rejoicing, the Ghalilaon, out of what remains of the original material.”
“For the first time, we have this year bypassed the arduous step of the extracting the 27 aromatic oils. This was a time-consuming process that involved copious effort, huge 100 litre-crucibles, as well as other equipment.
“The new method,” the Pope said, “has the added value of allowing us to make a bigger quantity of Myron Oil since it simplifies the process.”
The new process, however, does not leave any remains after the extraction process, so how would the Ghalilaon Oil be prepared? Pope Tawadros explained that a simple calculation showed that the Myron Oil ingredients allowed for the preparation of a quantity of Ghalilaon Oil that was around 1 per cent of the concentration of the Myron Oil. “So we prepared that portion of Ghalilaon with the same concentration,” he said.
Pope Tawadros reminded us that innovation was never a missing ingredient in the Church. He had taken part in the making of Myron Oil at Anba Bishoi’s with Pope Shenouda III during the years 1987, 1993, 1995, 2005, and 2008. “Every time,” Pope Tawadros said, “the technique differed one way or another, whether in the grinding, soaking, mixing or stirring processes. Pope Shenouda was keen on avoiding errors or troubles, and on using scientific means to reach the best results.
“Pope Shenouda used to cook Myron with the help of Father Georgious Attallah of St John’s in Covena, California who had been a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Science before he was ordained. It was Fr Attallah who helped us to contact the international companies specialised in the extraction of oils.”
5 April 2017