The Catholicos consecrates the chrism with the relic of the Apostle to the Armenians, St. Gregory the Illuminator. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Catholicos Karekin I ends the chrism liturgy, the first of his pontificate. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Thousands celebrated the final chrism liturgy of the millennium. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
One woman prays long after the crowds have left. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Every seven years the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians renews the bonds linking the Armenian Apostolic Church to her early fourth-century apostle, St. Gregory the Illuminator. It is a rite that has continued without interruption since Gregory baptized Armenias King Tiridates III at the end of the third century.
In a four-hour-long ceremony, the Catholicos consecrates a vat of perfumed olive oil, mixing with it a vial of myron, or chrism, consecrated previously by his predecessors. After the chrism is venerated by the faithful, the Catholicos distributes the blessed oil to his archbishops and bishops for use in their respective dioceses, a symbol of their communion with the Catholicos.
Last autumn, I traveled to the holy city of Etchmiadzin, near Armenias capital of Yerevan, to observe the final chrism blessing of the second millennium after Christ. The next occasion, which will break the seven-year cycle, will occur in the year 2001 the 1,700th anniversary of the Armenian Church.
Chrism plays an essential role in the sacramental life of the Armenian Apostolic Church, especially in the rites of Christian Initiation, which includes Baptism and Chrismation (or Confirmation). After the neophyte (usually a child) is baptized immersed in consecrated water three times the individual is anointed with the holy oil on the forehead, eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, hands, heart, back and feet.
Sweet oil, the priest says to the confirmand, is poured out on you in Christs name, as the seal of gifts from Heaven.
Chrism is also used to ordain catholicoi, bishops and priests, and to consecrate churches, altars and all liturgical objects.
The preparation of the chrism begins 40 days prior to the consecration liturgy. Pure olive oil forms the base for the chrism. A mixture of wine and more than 40 different herbs, spices and flowers such as roses and orange blossoms is added to the oil. The mixture is kept in a tightly sealed cauldron and brought to a boil. For two days it simmers, while an attendant keeps watch, stirring the oil to prevent it from burning. It is then strained in preparation for the consecration liturgy.
Last September, on the eighth day of the month, the day of the chrism blessing, additional flowers and spices were added, together with the chrism blessed previously. The Catholicos stirred the mixture with the holy Atsh, a reliquary fashioned of gold in the form of a right arm enshrining a relic of St. Gregory the Illuminator. As he stirred, the Catholicos prayed: Let the chrism be blessed, anointed and cleansed with the relic of the holy Illuminator.
Throughout the ceremony, portions of a long narrative poem, The Book of Lamentations, composed by the greatest figure in Armenian literature, St. Gregory of Narek, were recited by the Catholicos and choir.
Born in 951 A.D., St. Gregory of Narek embraced the monastic life and, later, the priesthood. Written by a poet with mystical inclinations, Gregorys Book of Lamentations consists of 95 chapters; each titled, Conversations with God from the Depths of the Heart. Portions of Chapter 93, which is reserved for the chrism liturgy, have been translated and follow on page 24.
The consecration of the chrism attracted thousands of believers from around the world. Before the break of dawn, pilgrims from Armenia, Argentina, Canada, Europe,the Middle East and the United States jammed the square in front of the sixth-century cathedral in Etchmiadzin to witness the final consecration of chrism in the second millennium.
May this holy chrism, said Catholicos Karekin I, the first in my pontificate and the last of the 20th century, be a chrism of life, new life, ever renewing life, becoming brighter in our homeland and a vision of the brilliant transformation of our nation, our church and our world.
With the ceremonys conclusion, hundreds of anxious pilgrims ran toward the cauldron, which had been wrapped in colorful silks and damask, to touch it with a handkerchief. The handkerchiefs, thus blessed, would be kept in the homes of the pilgrims for use in times of need.
Armineh Johannes, a Paris-based photojournalist, frequently travels to the Caucasus.