The blessing of the Miwron : Behind the ritual

Continuing the series on the Armenian Church, Revd. Dr. Nersessian explains the rituals and festival

The Armenian Orthodox Apostolic Church has four feast days dedicated to the Holy Cross:Apparition of the Holy Cross, Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Discovery of the Holy Cross and Holy Cross of Varag. Of these the fourth is unique to the Armenian Church. It recounts the story of an Armenian priest in the seventh century, when Armenia was occupied by the Arabs, seeing a vision of the cross on Mount Varag in Vaspourakan. This year the feast of the Holy Cross of Varag was celebrated on 28th September 2008 in conjunction with a very special ritual. On this occasion His Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians (Chief Bishop) performed one of the most ancient and mystical rituals of the Armenian church called Miwronorhnek, the Blessing of the Holy Chrism, performed once every seven years at Echmiadsin. In the whole of the 20th century, this ritual has been performed only nine times.

The ceremony is quite complex and preparations begin 40 days before the festive service. Seven layers of veils cover the cauldron in which the chrism is already fermenting. The prayer service begins a 40 day process of chanting of psalms, singing of hymns and scriptural readings,culminating in the Blessing of the Holy Chrism by the Catholicos of All Armenians, assisted by twelve bishops representing the church world wide.

The word miwron means "fragrant oil" in Greek,derived from the root ' to rub', or ' to anoint'.The miwron is an extremely precious mixture comprising of the fragrance of 40 recipes described in the Old Testament:

Armenian miwron is made of pure virgin olive oil, balsam ( a fragrant liquid that comes from the bark of some evergreens), and 40 kind of incense, flowers, roots, plants, oils, and leaf extracts. Some of the ingredients are obtained from distant locations like India, Sumatra and Nepal.

The Blessing of the Miwron is an extravagant ritual, containing a rare list of ingredients, performed ony by the Catholicos of All Armenians in the presence of thousands of pilgrims. If one were to compare it with any other  religious festival the most equal in significance would be  the pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca. The Armenian church cannot function without it. In the Armenian  church it is used to consecrate altars,churches,gospels,clergy, and in Baptism it is used for confirmation.

On the feast of Nativity and Epiphany marking the the Birth and Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, celebrated on the 6th of January, the blessing of the water and pouring of drops of miwron into the water contained in a vessel in the shape of a dove symbolises the descent of the Holy Spirit confirming Christ to be the Son of God. The revealing of Christ to mankind is not as a child but as a Saviour.

The most significant  aspect of the Blessing of the Miwron is its continuity factor. According to tradition, a portion of the chrism that Moses blessed still remained in Jesus' time. Jesus blessed it as well and gave some to St Thaddeus, who took it to Armenia and healed King Abgar of a skin disease. St Thaddeus buried the bottle of holy oil under an evergreen tree in Taron, where St Gregory the Enlightener found it through a vision. He took the bottle and mixed it with the first blessing of the miwron he performed, when Armenia became a Christian state in AD 301. To this day,whenever a new batch of miwron is blessed, the central focus of the entire ceremony  is the mixing of the old miwron with the new. Behind the symbolism of this story, lies the concept of the Apostolic authority of the church that the use of the  miwron in baptism  links every Armenian to his Christian roots via Moses, Jesus Christ and Gregory the Enlightener.

Revd. Dr. Nersessian is a priest in the Armenian Church. He is curator of the Christian Middle East collections in the British Library and has authored several books including The Bible in Armenian Tradition and Sacred Books of the Three Faiths: Judaism,Christianity, Islam.