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The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit

All Orthodox Christians have been chrismated. Yet how many of us know the significance and the great obligation implied in this profound and ancient spiritual Mystery? The manner of preparing Holy Chrism, and the meaning of this "seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" glean to every Orthodox Christian, should be known to all of us, for in our daily lives this is too often a forgotten aid to spiritual growth.

    The first chrism was made by the prophet and Law giver, Moses, according to directions given him by God, and used by him to consecrate the Tabernacle and anoint Aaron for the service of the High Priest. All subsequent prophets, high priests and kings over Israel were likewise chrismated, as was anything or anyone reserved exclusively to the service of God or to a life of holiness. We find in the Old Testament scriptures many references to this special rite: "I have found David My servant, with My holy oil have I anointed him" (Ps. 88:19); "Touch not Mine anointed ones" (Ps. 10l:15).

    The word "chrism" or "anointment" is directly related to "Christ" as "the Anointed One" (Ps. 2:2; John 2:41). It is in Christ that the first anointing given under the old Law was fulfilled: "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy Spirit" (Acts 10:38). As followers of Christ, we receive anointing in token of our true adoption as sons of God; through Chrismation we become Christians, "anointed ones". This is prefigured in the Old Testament; as Moses consecrated the Tabernacle wherein the tablets of the old Law were kept, so also all Orthodox Christians, tabernacles of a new Law, are anointed and sanctified in order to make them fit dwellings of God. As kings are set apart, by anointing, to be rulers over their subjects and conquer their enemies, so we are set apart, by chrismation, to become with God's help masters over our passions and conquerors of the spiritual enemies who war against us.

The Mystery of Chrismation

     Just as the ring is a token of the seal of Holy Matrimony, the anointing with chrism is the seal of the Mystery of Baptism, and it takes place immediately following the water baptism. Although Baptism is a new birth, a release from the bondage of sin and death, Chrismation is the breath of life in the soul of the newly-born, the vivifying inbreathing of the Holy Spirit upon the soul and body of the babe in Christ. After the anointing the the priest tells the newly received member of the Church: "Thou art washed, thou art sanctified, thou art justified, thou art illumined'' (cf. I Cor. 6:11), signifying that he has been baptized both by water and by the Spirit.

     In the earliest days of the Church, this "baptism of the Holy Spirit" (misunderstood by sectarians) was performed by the laying on of hands by the Apostles(Acts 8:17). As the Faith spread, it became physically impossible for the Apostles to lay hands on all who desired baptism. Although it is not expressly stated in the New Testament, it is very probable, as Fr. Michael Pomazansky suggests, that the Apostles "changed the visible sign of the Mystery (the laying on of hands), perhaps in the beginning in cases where they themselves were absent, replacing it with another visible sacred act (the anointment with myrrh) [Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p 272].   Through the Chrism, which the Apostles alone (and their successors the bishops) were allowed to consecrate, the apostolic invocation of the Holy Spirit was transmitted to each and every new Christian, a practice which has continued unchanged to our own times.

The Preparation of Holy Chrism The care and purity with which holy Chrism has been prepared since Apostolic times, is the marker the reverence and awe we should feel for this Mystery. Made according to an intricate and ancient formula, Holy Chrism is only made during Great Week, and is usually prepared and kept in a patriarchal or monastery cathedral

Holy Chrism has been made once in the Russian Church Abroad since the exile began, and was prepared according to this ancient manner at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, N.Y. According to the rule, the preparation of Holy Chrism begins on the third Sunday in Lent, the Sunday of the Cross, when all the ingredients are brought together and made ready--chiefly olive oil, white grape wine, and the great number and variety of incenses and other aromatic substances needed for the Chrism. (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, in his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, elaborates on the mystical significance of the large number of ingredients used.) On Holy Monday the Bishops and clergy gather in church and bless the water, the already-prepared ingredients, and the cauldron in which the Chrism will be "boiled" for the next three days. The bishops prepare the fire under the pot themselves, and having lit the fire with the flame from the trikiri, they begin to heat the mixture of olive oil and white wine. This is boiled until the morning of Holy Wednesday, and during this time members of the clergy keep a continuous vigil, reading aloud the Gospel of St. Matthew, while the chrism is stirred by deacons.

    On Holy Wednesday the bishops bless the incenses again and these are poured into the boiling oil and wine; the chrism is kept over a flame until the evening. In the evening the clergy sing the Pentecost troparian, "Blessed are Thou, O Christ our God..." while the new Chrism is poured into containers and sealed in the presence of the hierarchs, to await its blessing during the Liturgy on Holy Thursday. Portions of the Chrism are then sent out to all the dioceses, and each priest is given some by his bishop. In the Russian Church Abroad, the reserves of Holy Chrism are kept at holy Trinity Monastery.

The large number and variety of ingredients in Chrism signifies the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Metropolitan Platon of Moscow (t1712), preached a sermon in which he elaborated on some of these "gifts of the Holy Spirit," which are available to all Orthodox Christians who will stretch out their hands for them. Since the Holy Spirit is indeed the "Spirit of God ," the "Spirit of adoption ," the "Comforter," the "Spirit of Truth." as we acknowledge Him to be everyday in prayer, Metropolitan Platon told his flock to labor to make themselves capable of receiving the gifts the Comforter has to give--first of all the gifts of piety, of fear of God, and of strength, for without these three it is impossible to progress. Next, if we ask for the gifts of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, we must understand that the three are truly different and that together, with God's mercy, they will brine enlightenment to the soul: "the anointing which ye have received... teacheth you of all things" (I John 2:27). The gift of wisdom teaches us to understand what is truly good for us and what is only harm disguised as good. The gift of understanding preserves within us a due sense of balance and order. "Without (this) man's thoughts will be confused and disordered, and will dangerously stray from the correct course." The gift of knowledge is the "ability to gain knowledge of necessary things and preserve a clear conception of them"--to understand and cling to the "one thing needful." The gift of counsel is high among the gifts of the holy Spirit, preserving us from falling at the urgings of our own pride and self-will. Those who act without counsel seldom act in accordance with the will of God.

    Like Baptism, the sacrament of Chrismation is granted only once in the lifetime of each Orthodox Christian. When we are chrismated the seeds of perfection are implanted in our souls, giving us the potential to grow "to the stature of men in Christ." The doorway to all the "fruits of the Spirit" mentioned in Scripture is opened to us. Whether we go through that doorway into the inheritance prepared for us in Christ depends only on our willingness to labor over ourselves, to bring alive, through prayer and repentance and spiritual struggle, the promise given us by God at Baptism.