The bitter, the loving ; the myrrh and the dying.
My fools for senses,
As we leave Christmas and following our Review of Baiser de Florence, built around a sublime and sticky myrrh, we wanted to write an Overview about this ingredient so mysterious and unknowable. The story of myrrh brings us to the crucial moment of the Adoration of the Magi who, after facing the rigours of the Persian, Syrian and Judean desert, found their way to a stable, to a woman in childbirth, to a child in nappies and offered them gold and incense and myrrh. Who didn’t flinch when reading of such precious and superfluous presents offered to a breastfeeding mother ?
If, from a historical point of view, the incense refers to the royal blood of the daughter of King David whilst the incense refers to the devotion of these God-fearing people, we’re more interested in their symbolical meaning. According to the Tradition of the Church Fathers, the gold and the incense are respectively the signs of the royalty and the divinity of Jesus, Son of God and consubstantial to the Father whereas the myrrh was a sign of death as it clearly evoked the Hebrew and Egyptian funeral rites. But was that all she was a sign of ? Death ? Was there not something more ?
Together, my fools for senses, let us explore the mother, the loving ; the bitter, the dying. Let us dive in the river of antic traditions and discover the mystical meaning of myrrh in Christianity.
Firstly, myrrh appears as a present, along with incense. Precious resin bearing the most beautiful perfume, according to the Greeks, offered in casks by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon King, myrrh has always been considered as a costly gift, as many verses from the Scriptures give us proof. Be it in the Book of the Proverbs : « I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, with aloes and cinnamon » or the Canticle of the Canticles : « A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me » or even in the Psalms : « All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia », myrrh was always somehow linked to carnal and voluptuous pleasures, to paroxystic luxury and richness and finally to the consummation of love and its climactic union.
There is thus somewhat of a paradox in that myrrh would also be a symbol of death, its austerity reminding the people of the sheol and the penitence of King David after his sins. It is however the real meaning one has to understand when reading such verses in the Scriptures in order to enter the depths of christian mystagogy – myrrh becomes a link between the two Testaments, moreover it becomes the link between the gold of humanity and the incense of divinity. Through the Church Fathers, myrrh reveals itself as a concrete and sensible sign of the theosis, the perfect union of Man and God in the glory of transfigured light.
To better comprehend this, one must remember the Nativity icons representing the Virgin Mary as looking away from her son. What might seem meaningless to any man surely won’t be to any mother for indeed, which mother wouldn’t want to spend an eternity gazing at the child she had borne for nine months ? This simple glance to the left –the death- is already the mystical sign that the Mother of God, in the very first second of her son’s terrestrial existence, had understood the pain of the Passion and foreseen her own child’s death. The offerings of myrrh carried by the Magi are but another sign confirming her personal instinct – the famous icon of Our Lady of Seven Dolours is hinted at the Nativity. One must also bear in mind that, to a Hebrew woman, myrrh was a clear reference to the burial rites and the mourning women walking before the corpse wrapped in a shroud dripping with myrrh and unguents.
In light of these informations, a second reading of the scriptural verses we’ve singled out completely changes their meaning. The robe of myrrh and aloes that the Psalm sang of is indeed a royal garment but not in the way the world understands it : this robe is naught but the holy shroud and the groom is none other than the Christ.
We could have ended our study here, that myrrh is death although it would have been an incomplete article for our aim was to explore the symbolical and mystical meaning of this ingredient according to the Christian tradition, and according to it, the Passion would be meaningless without the Resurrection.
In Greek, Christ means « the anointed ». The same psalm sings : « Therefore God has anointed you with the oil of joy ». Could it bey et another oil than that carried to the sepulchre by the myrrophores ? The answer is no. This anointing of joy is that of myrrh. That of death.
For indeed, as death, once transfigured, has become resurrection ; myrrh, once transfigured, has become a sign of death no longer but of life everlasting. And one suddenly remembers another verse from the Book of Isaiah saying : « Behold, for peace I had bitterness », the word peace here meaning completeness and welfare. In light of the Resurrection, bitterness becomes joy, myrrh becomes peace. Sign of the mystery unfathomable which the Mother knew without grasping it, being a symbol of life, heralding the Resurrection, myrrh thus becomes the sensible and palpable sign of a supersensible reality : that of theosis, of the perfect communion of Man with God.
Indeed, the life here isn’t mere life but the new life in the Holy Spirit. The anointing is that of the Spirit who descended onto Jesus as he was baptised in the Jordan ; such life being mystically transferred during the Chrismation –anointing- through the use of Holy Chrism, thus sealing the Holy Spirit into the newly baptised, breathing in him a fire of life which will come of aid in his many fights against evil.
All of this is shown in the semantic shift of the word « myrrh » in Greek, from meaning « bitterness » to meaning « perfume ». The word « myron » in Greek refers to the Holy Chrism used to anoint the newly baptised. Such shift is meaningful for it puts to light a symbolic shift : myrrh is no longer the scent of death, it is become the good scent, the scent of life in the light of the Holy Spirit.
The death here is the death to oneself, to one’s own ego, to one’s past ; it means forsaking one’s one will to drink the bitter cup which will bring one « peace ». More than a mere sign of death, more than heralding the Passion, myrrh becomes the shining sign of a death which all Men could now assume through the Holy Chrism and which would bring them glory in the heavens.
For at last, that myrrh is also the one exuded by myroblites, the relics of men and women and martyrs and saints ; the miraculous icons abundantly exuding a strongly perfumed oil.
The Adoration of the Magi, more than an indelicate gift to a mother, is on the contrary the prophetic sign of a revolutionary fate, going over the heads of every person present at the time. We must also link their gifts to the traditional christian doxology : « The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are Yours ». The reign, as shown with gold, isn’t terrestrial but celestial. The power, symbolised by the myrrh, is the power to overcome death and bestowing life on those in the tombs. The glory, represented by the incense, is that of the Son along His Father.
Myrrh is the bitterness bringing peace back. Through it must we learn to detach ourselves from our earthly goods and heavy riches. Through it must we learn to let go of the old man, to let his corpse be buried into the sepulchre. Through it must we learn to forgive ourselves, to heal our bodies and wounds ; to embalm the corpse of our souls tormented and tortured by intense lives with the unguent of forgiveness which brings back to life.
Yes, the bitter myrrh is the mercy so alien to our hearts. For it is hard indeed to swallow up one’s ego, to silence one’s pride so as to let forgiveness run its course and act as a soothing balm. But which wound doesn’t sting when washen with alcohol ? The true bitterness, the true pain, the true death to oneself is there. Like myrrh is starts bitter ; like myrrh it brings us joy and peace.
The true bitterness, the true pain, the true death to oneself ; the real life and joy : it is mercy, my fools for senses. It is Love.
The bitter, the loving ;
The myrrh and the dying.