Posts tagged ‘oil’

January 9, 2018

St John saw the true temple restored, and this is the earliest picture we have of Christian worship

The fact that we call Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, which means the Anointed One, shows that Christians live and think in a world where the lost anointing oil and everything it stood for has been been restored. The perfumed anointing oil was fundamental to the original temple world. Tradition remembered that it represented oil from the tree of life,9 and the tree of life was the ancient symbol of the Holy Wisdom. One of the wise teachers of Israel had said: ‘Wisdom is a tree of life for those who hold on to her.’10

9 E.g. Clementine Recognitions 1.46.

…In the Church all this was restored. The name ‘Christians’, first used in Antioch14 meant more than just ‘followers of the Christ, the anointed one.’ Since Christians were also anointed at their baptism, the name means something like ‘little anointed ones’, and so we are all little Melchizedeks, little royal high priests. This is what St Peter said to those Christians in Asia Minor: ‘You are a royal priesthood’.15

…There is a lovely story in a 3rd century CE Syriac text which tells how Adam took three things with him when he left Eden: gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were the symbols of the original temple. These were buried with him in a cave when he died, and when the magi came seeking the infant Jesus, they took those same treasures from the cave to offer to the new Adam.17

17 Testament of Adam 3.6; there is a similar story in Syriac Book of the Cave of Treasures.

…When the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, or maybe a short while before their invasion, the oil, the ark and the cherubim disappeared from the temple; but in the time of the Messiah and the true temple, it was said, they would return, along with the seven branched lampstand, the Spirit and the fire. The Spirit and the fire returned at Pentecost, and, if you read the Book of Revelation with temple-trained eyes, [opened eyes] you will find all the other missing items restored too. St John saw the true temple restored, and this is the earliest picture we have of Christian worship. This vision shaped even the simplest worship on earth, because the Christians were a part of it.

…The outer part of the temple was called the holy place; the inner part was called the holy of holies, sometimes translated ‘the most holy place’. Now ‘most holy’ in temple-talk meant more than ‘very holy’. It meant actively holy, infectiously holy. Anything ‘most holy’ conferred holiness, but only the anointing oil – kept in the holy of holies – could confer ‘most holiness’ on a person or on a sacred object. The LORD told Moses how to blend the perfumed oil, and then he told him to anoint the furnishings and the high priests of the tabernacle ‘that they may be most holy, and whatever touches them will become holy’.22 Anyone entering the holy of holies became holy, a holy one, and that meant an angel. The holy of holies was the visible sign of the Source of holiness at the centre.

…In the outer part of the temple was the golden table for bread, wine and incense.27 The table is mentioned in the tabernacle at Sinai28 and in Solomon’s temple,29 but nowhere in the Old Testament is there any detail about what the table and its offerings represented. Twelve huge loaves were set out with frankincense, and the Greek text says there was salt.30 The high priests [and by the time of Jesus, the other priests too] had to put fresh loaves into the temple each Sabbath, and then eat the ones they brought out. This was described as their ‘most holy’ food, which means it imparted holiness, and it was also an eternal covenant.31 The bread of the presence – ‘shewbread’ in some older Bibles – did not mean ‘set out in the presence’. It meant that the bread was, in some way, a presence. But whose presence did the high priests consume to nourish their holiness? The meaning of the temple furnishings and rituals was known only to the high priests, but some of them, such as Josephus, revealed enough to enable us to detect allusions elsewhere.

…I have deliberately not mentioned the first day of creation, because there is no ‘first day’ of creation in the text of Genesis. Both the Hebrew and the Greek say ‘Day One’, not ‘the first day’. The origin of creation was not within time but was outside time. It was not a case of first, then second, then third and so on. The origin of creation was outside time, and the text marked this by saying Day One, instead of ‘first day’.

Day One was represented by the holy of holies, the golden cube that housed the cherub throne of God. Whatever was within the veil was outside time and outside matter, since the outer area represented the world of time and matter. Within the veil, a state beyond time and matter, there could be no division, and so Day One was said to represent the divine Unity underlying all creation and from which all creation proceeds. It was also the state of the light before creation, the light of the divine presence. In temple-talk, this was the Kingdom. Some temple mystics were enabled to see through the veil to the light and unity beyond. The Transfiguration is the best-known account of such an experience. St John said that seeing and entering the Kingdom was for those who had been born from above. 37

On the sixth day of erecting the tabernacle, Moses purified the high priests to serve in the tabernacle, and on the sixth day in Genesis, Adam was created. The comparison shows that Adam was created to be the high priest of creation. He was created to be the presence of the LORD. When the high priest was anointed, the oil was put on his eyelids to open his eyes, but also on his forehead in the shape of a cross. This was the sign of the name of the LORD.38 The Christians also had this mark, given at baptism. In the Book of Revelation, St John tells how he saw a multitude whom the angel would mark on their foreheads, and then he saw them standing before the throne in heaven, which means they were in the holy of holies. They all had the name, that is, the cross, on their foreheads 39, and so they were all high priests.

…Now let us see how this understanding of high-priesthood can illuminate the Genesis story of Adam. He was created as the Image. He was set in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. That is the usual English translation 42, but the writer of Genesis chose his words carefully and did not in fact describe Adam as a gardener. Jewish interpreters in the time of Jesus did not think of Adam as a gardener. The Hebrew word translated ‘to till’ also means ‘to serve a liturgy’, and the Hebrew word translated ‘to keep’ means to preserve the teachings. The role of high-priestly role of Adam and of every human being was to lead the worship of creation and to preserve right teachings about how we should live in the world.

…Nobody knows for certain the origin of this Slavonic text, the Book of the Secrets of Enoch. The oldest known copy was made in the 14th century AD. It could have been translated from much older materials, or it could have been composed at any time before that. Either way, it shows how Psalm 110 (109) was understood by someone at that time in old Russia. Enoch entered heaven and stood before the throne. There the LORD commanded the archangel Michael to remove Enoch’s earthly clothing, to anoint him with perfumed oil, and to vest him in the clothes of the LORD’s glory. In temple reality, this was the garment of fine white linen worn in the holy of holies. This was the equivalent of Jesus’s shining white garment that the disciples saw at the Transfiguration. Enoch described the oil as like sweet dew, perfumed with myrrh.52 This was the temple oil, the dew of Psalm 110 (109). Then, said Enoch, ‘I looked at myself and I had become like one of his glorious ones’. Enoch had become an angel. He was an angel high priest, wearing the robes of divine glory.

“OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST: THE CHURCH AS THE NEW TEMPLE” by Margaret Barker. Fr Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture. St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, New York, 28 January 2012.

June 11, 2016

Myrrh, Mercy, and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All

I don’t know what to do with two small zip-lock baggies of myrrh that my wife and I collected last Sunday (June 5, 2016) from a miraculous myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos in Taylor, PA. These two swabs of white cotton soaked in a bright yellow-orange oil are shut up tightly inside plastic, but they still give off a pungent, sweet fragrance that definitely includes rose blossom (along with other scents that are less easily discerned, such as two that my children suggested: “honey comb” and “new doll”).

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy this year (March 20) my kids and I went to church, and the priest said that he had thrown out the notes for his homily yesterday evening after he participated in the Triumph of Orthodoxy vespers at a neighboring parish where several churches from the region were gathered together. During this joint prayer service (which celebrates the restoration of icons after a dispute about them within the early church), my priest witnessed the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos that was visiting from Taylor, PA. In addition to watching sweet smelling oil flow from its surface, he heard stories of the many blessings and healings associated with this icon. For several years, visitors to this icon had been healed from cancer and other diseases that doctors had declared incurable by medical means. My priest is Father Peter of St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA, and the priest visiting with the the myrrh-flowing Kardiotisa (“The Tender Heart”) icon was Father Mark of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA. (See image of the Kardiotisa icon at bottom of this post.)

One story told by Father Mark touched Father Peter in particular. It was about a teenage girl who struggled with a horribly negative self-image and who faced harsh bullying at school. When anointed by myrrh from the icon, she was delivered from thoughts of self harm and became a strong and confident young lady who was filled with thanksgiving for God, her family, and her friends. Father Peter also relayed how God clearly did not discriminate between various types of believers when it came to granting mercy through this icon. Those healed included Christians from many traditions as well as Muslims and others. Father Peter had seen many other myrrh streaming icons over his decades of ministry, but this experience had clearly moved him in a fresh way.

While he spoke, I was thinking of my mother who was diagnosed over a year ago with stage four breast cancer that doctors said could never be eradicated by medical means. My eight year old son was evidently thinking of my mother as well. He leaned over to me and whispered, “We should take grandma to see this icon.” After the service, he and I joined the line of those going forward to be anointed with the sweet-smelling oil collected from this icon.

As I said, that was March 20, and it was June 5 before we made it there with my mother. Our visit to St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA was rescheduled twice. Then, on the morning of the visit, it was difficult to get up on time, to pack up and clean the house where we were staying for the weekend as an extended family, and to keep our cool while following GPS directions that took us via an extremely strange and circuitous route. (Truth be told, I did not fully keep my cool during this last leg of the road trip.) We made it to the Sunday morning service (called the Divine Liturgy) about half way through (near the end of the sermon), and my extended family followed me quietly into seats within the first two rows of pews on the far right side of the sanctuary. We did our best to pray and sing our way through the remainder of the highly elaborate and largely unfamiliar service. Visiting along with my mother and I that morning, there were also my wife and two children, my father, my young twin sisters (the same age as my daughter), and two of my grown siblings, a brother and a sister (a mother of five) who had her baby boy along with us.

At the end of the service, Father Mark had a lengthy announcement about the proposed purchase of a walk-in freezer for the congregation as well as comments about a recent chemical analysis of the myrrh from the streaming icon (an analysis by a Ukrainian association of chemists that had not been sanctioned by the bishop but that had produced some fascinating results that Father Mark detailed quickly to his congregation). He finally concluded the service by inviting anyone to come forward and to receive an anointing with myrrh from the icon. Every member of my family and extended family came forward, and a visiting priest gave the blessing and the anointing, placing a small dab of myrrh in the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads with his thumb. As we were all going up front for this, my wife checked that all of our family members had noticed the location of the streaming icon near the center of the sanctuary. Its entire surface was visibly wet with myrrh, and some oil could be seen on the outside of the icon’s protective case.

My mother needed to use the restroom after this, and I hung out near the sanctuary hoping to catch a word with Father Mark, who I had corresponded with several times over the past few weeks in preparation for this visit. He was busy with a portion of his congregation offering a prayer service for a recently departed member of their church. I checked on my family situated in the social hall attached to the church and returned to the sanctuary, where I waited and finally had an opportunity to greet Father Mark. He was praying with a devout and emotional young couple who were clearly also there to seek help from Mary at her myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was also busy with some of his deacons and several remaining members of the congregation, lifting the protective cover from the icon and examining the cotton swabs packed into a tray along the icon’s bottom edge to collect the myrrh. He and several others were expressing joy at the quantity of myrrh as it dripped from the protective case itself, and one woman reached out to catch the drops before they fell to the floor.

With some persistence, I was able to get Father Mark’s direct attention and introduce myself. He seemed to vaguely remember corresponding with me, and then he warmly welcomed my entire family and extended family. He asked each person to hold out their hands as he held up the icon and waited for one drop of myrrh to fall into the hands of my father, mother, four siblings, wife, son, and finally my little nephew. My daughter quietly declined. During this time, as the drops fell one-by-one into outstretched hands, two older women from the congregation were alternately praying out loud and chattering with members of my family (telling them many stories about the icon). Father Mark invited us to leave any written prayer requests in little decorated blue boxes at the back of the church. These requests would be read out loud in the sanctuary and placed into a large wooded chest that was kept near the icon. One of the elder ladies explained that a member of the congregation had given this chest to the church for this purpose and let us know that hey had another chest stored within their altar area that was already filled with paper slips holding prayers from previous visitors. In one last effort, I asked Father Mark if he would pray specifically for my mother right then and there. He agreed and prayed for her out loud before the Mother of God’s myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was a generous and unassuming man who radiated simple joy and good humor. I felt bad to ask for so much, but he gave graciously.

As we were finally leaving, several members of the congregation came forward to receive pieces of cotton that were torn off, one-by-one, from the larger swabs that were packed into the trough at the base of the icon. These were soaked with myrrh and were placed in small zip-lock bags for members of the congregation to take with them. My mother and sister hesitated at first. However, Father Mark was clearly liberal in the distribution of these bags, and they each ended up with one. My grown sister overheard Father Mark telling a little girl in the congregation to take one with her and teasing the girl by telling her to go and tell her brother that Father Mark said he couldn’t have one today. My wife and I each got a separate bag as well.

Scripture is full of references to oil used for cooking, with sacrifices, and for anointing. All four Gospels speak of the myrrh bearing women who came to anoint Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfumes that Mary had poured over his feet and wiped off with her hair not long before his crucifixion. These ladies are described beautifully in the book Christ in His Saints by Patrick Henry Reardon. He explains that they spent a lot of money and some no doubt risked the wrath of their unbelieving husbands to get up before sunrise and take this myrrh to anoint the dead body of their Messiah whom they had seen placed within a cave behind a massive stone and under the watch of a professional Roman guard. How they planned to move the stone and get past the soldiers is unclear, but one thing is clear: they had not imaged the possibility of a resurrection. When they arrived, however, the stone was gone, and they met angels instead of soldiers. Reardon ends his account of these devoted women with an intentional note of irony by asking us to consider “all of that myrrh gone to waste.”

In 1 Kings 17 and then again in 2 Kings 4, we read of first Elijah and then his disciple Elisha making a jar of oil flow continually in the service of God as well as an old widow who is seeking to care for her destitute family. In a vision from Zechariah 4, we again see an endless supply of oil. In this account, two olive trees provide a continual stream of oil to keep a beautiful lamp stand alight with seven flames (like the lamp in the tabernacle and temple as well as the seven lamps that represent each of the churches written to by Jesus Christ at the beginning of St. John’s Apocalypse).

In many of these Biblical references, the oil is connected to the Spirit of God bringing light and life to all His creatures. And there is also another theme, one of anointing with medicines and perfumes. The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word is based on an older Greek root meaning olive oil, a substance that was used as a soothing agent for bruises and wounds (as we see in the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor).

Keith Green sings: “My heart is hard, my prayers are cold / And I know how I ought to be / Alive to You and dead to me // Oh what can be done for an old heart like mine / Soften it up with oil and wine / The oil is You, Your Spirit of love.”

And before this, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote within an astounding poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / …It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?”

This song and this poem both capture a lot, in different ways, about God’s presence as it has been mediated to us all daily, in unexpected ways. After writing all this, however, I am not much closer to making a decision about what to do with my bag of myrrh. My wife and I have shared a few ideas with each other, both immediately afterward and in the following days. Regardless, I am simply grateful to have had its beautiful smell in my home for this week and to be faced with the strange dilemma that it brings. I’ll probably try to share my myrrh somehow (the wise men gave away all of their myrrh after all), and I will also seek ideas from others who are older and wiser than myself. And your suggestions, dear reader, are welcome too.

[Note: shown in the photo at the top of this post are the two bags that I mention, containing cotton swabs soaked with myrrh. Also in the picture is my son’s small prayer book (a recent gift to him from my mother) and two small (prayer-card-sized) icons gifted to us by friends about a year ago (depicting Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon and Saint Elizabeth the New Marty who is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria).]

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November 17, 2011

the world is like an oilpress

Thus the world is like an oilpress: under pressure. If you are the dregs of the oil you are carried away through the sewer; if you are genuine oil you will remain in the vessel. But to be under pressure is inevitable. Observe the dregs, observe the oil. Pressure takes place ever in the world, as for instance, through famine, war, want, inflation, indigence, mortality, rape, avarice; such are the pressures on the poor, the worries of the states: we have evidence of them. …We have found men who grumble under these pressures and who say: “how bad are these Christian times!” …Thus speak the dregs of the oil which run away through the sewer; their color is black because they blaspheme: they lack splendor. The oil has splendor. For here another sort of man is under the same pressure and friction which polishes him, for is it not the very friction which refines him?

From Augustine’s Sermons (ed. Denis, xxiv. 11. and quoted in Meaning in History by Karl Lowith).

I’m not sure that Augustine lists some of the most intense and subtle pressures in this world, and I wish that he more fully identified the splendor (or the inevitable response that this splendor elicits from the meek and hungry): the ongoing expression of broken hallelujahs under pressure (as sung about by Leonard Cohen). However, this image of Christ (“another sort of man”) under pressure is profoundly true and echos the “ooze of oil” that is so central an image in the poem “God’s Grandeur” by Hopkins.

June 21, 2011

ooze of oil

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89):

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It’s a violation of this blog’s purpose to include much commentary on the passages, but I needed to write a prose reflection on this poem by Hopkins today and will include this gushy first draft (any feedback in the next couple of days will help me improve it before delivery):

Hopkins’ title and first line taken together form a simple chiasm (“God’s grandeur … grandeur of God”) with the “charged world” surrounded and throbbing at the center. Charge is an electrical term. It builds up over time. It is carried, potent and evenly dispersed (yet invisible), throughout the object.

Continuing this electrical (or scientific) language with “flame out,” “shining” and “foil,” we nonetheless shift to natural sunlight as the real source of the bright, piercing light. The world is only a mirror. We notice, too, the first introduction of violence as the cause of the brightness. Shook foil, creased and vibrating, reflects the light with almost overwhelming glory. It is the shaking that releases the potential, the built-up and hidden charge within.

This building up of a charge is echoed with “it gathers to a greatness.” Only now, with the “ooze of oil,” we are shifting to more ancient and agricultural images. “Crushed” is strongly emphasized by its solitary placement at the start of a line. It recalls and even intensifies the violence of “shook.”

Now the images come fast, harsh, jumbled, over-lapping, in a growing pile. “Generations that trod, trod, trod” maintains the agricultural picture (of olives or grapes being pressed under feet). It is fruitful and productive as well as wild, even wanton and destructive. This is an image of judgment, reinforced by the term “rod” in the previous line. Now we see the whole world, along with all of human history, as being charged, full of reflective potential, gathered to a pregnant greatness, ripe with oil for the pressing. At the same time, we (the trodders) are in rebellion against His rod. We do not recognize His bright and potent reign, although the world shines it out, drips with it, bleeds with it.

In this pile of negative and positive images, we feel tension. What is God using to shake out his grandeur, to press out this goodness, to harvest it? Despite (and through) our rebellion, our perverted labors, our abuse, the sufferings of the whole world itself are productive.

As listeners, we are by now involved and implicated in a brutal and ugly scene. This trodding is our own gross and heedless brutality. Even the oil (a source of light and life) is perverted and takes on a sinister sense as we witness a grimy, greasy fouling of the once shimmering foil. No light is reflected now from this crushed and dirty pulp. No longer charged and pregnant, it is violated and exposed by unfeeling generations of well-shod feet.

In the second stanza, we slow down and transition back to the opening lines, recognizing, even amid the bleary mess, a fullness and depth within the world. This being-charged-with-the-grandeur-of-God was too complete to be fully spent (shaken or trodden out). But this second recognition of fullness is less exuberant, more subdued yet more profound. We now face reverent words like “deep down” and “dearest freshness.” After the violence, the ugliness of searing toil, the smell of men who do not reckon with God’s rod, we find that this world cannot be ultimately marred. Whether we use the world well or we abuse her, only God’s grandeur can flame out. She is charged with nothing but goodness. She is fruitful and precious to her very pit.

Finally, blear and smear recurs as the world swoons away in blackness, until over the brown (barren) horizon “springs” a “morning,” a new creation under the hovering wings of the Holy Ghost. This second visitation of the Spirit brings to mind the first brooding of God over the darkness and chaos. But here, at this second dawn or birth, we see for a moment that the agent is, in some subsidiary sense, our own senseless marching, our own brutal trade. Heartless abuse and long suffering, in the deeper goodness of God’s economy, exposes or brings out only God’s grandeur. Christ’s own long-suffering and motherly Spirit puts even our facile abuses to the task of ushering life outward and forward, to the knowing of “dearest freshness deep down things.” Refreshed by the beauty that Hopkins’ language points to so faithfully, we might even be ready to walk unshod over seared and blackened earth. We might lay ourselves down and embrace the charged (and crushed) world with our own warm breasts and tender young wings.

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