When The Old Meets The New

Louis Sahagun

Express Buzz
Oct 3, 2008

Every seven years since AD 301, priests have trekked to the ancient
Cathedral of Etchmiadzin in Armenia to retrieve freshly brewed muron
–a sweet-scented holy oil stirred with what is said to be the tip
of the lance driven through Jesus’ side — and carry it back to their
respective dioceses.Prepared in a massive silver caldron, the mixture
of herbs, flower extracts, spices, wine and pure olive oil is derived
from an original batch mixed at the Armenian Church’s founding 1,707
years ago.

It is replenished every seven years by pouring old into new,
continuing a mysterious connection between distant generations.The
priests traditionally have traveled home with their portions in jars
cradled in their arms, because muron is supposed to be handled only
by ordained clergy.

That all changed late in September when ancient tradition met with a
21st-century obstacle put in place since the last trip for the holy
oil: As a liquid, muron cannot be taken aboard commercial airliners,
according to airport security rules.

"We were very worried — in the old days, we carried the muron in
our hands," said His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate
of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America,
which is based in Burbank, Calif.

"I would never have given away that privilege, but we had no
option." Derderian bundled up his six containers in layers of cloth
and then packed them snugly into three suitcases.

Airport baggage handlers took it from there.

"I was confident that nothing would happen to it,"he said. "You do
your best, and then trust in God." Derderian’s containers arrived
safely after a 20-hour flight.

A genial man with a black beard, Derderian declared mission
accomplished October 7 when priests from churches across Southern
California gathered around a massive oak table in his office.

Their 7-ounce portions of the amber- hued oil were presented on a
silver tray: 15 small glass jars with white screw-cap lids, each one
marked with a label written in English and Armenian: "Holy Muron.

September 28, 2008. Holy Etchmiadzin." After prayers and solemn hymns,
the clergy, clad in black robes, stood and formed a line.

Fist-sized silver crosses — some studded with precious stones —
dangled from silver chains around their necks. They approached the
table, in turn, with heads bowed and kissed the jars that Derderian
placed in their hands.

A few minutes later, they were heading back to their churches,
where the oil would be transferred into dove-shaped sterling silver
containers symbolising the Holy Spirit.

Over the next seven years, the muron will be used — a few drops
at a time — primarily for christenings in Armenian churches the
world over. "Armenians everywhere are bound by muron," said Zaven
Arzoumanian, a theologian with the Western Diocese.

"It receives special powers from relics used in its preparation. The
gifts of the Holy Spirit come from it in church ceremonies.

"That is why," he added with a smile, "our people have always said,
My child must be muronised. " Muron’s origins date to the founding
of the Armenian Church, which was established in the early fourth
century by St Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of Armenians.

He established the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, one of the world’s
oldest cathedrals.

St Gregory is said to have blended the first muron there as a unifying
religious symbol of forgiveness and peace, and as a medicine for

Over the centuries, church leaders say, muron helped sustain a people
decimated and dispersed by war, conquest and genocide.

This muron season, more than 70,000 people braved drenching rains
to watch His Holiness Karekin II, supreme patriarch and catholicos
of Armenians worldwide, lead a procession from the Cathedral of
Etchmiadzin to an outdoor altar where the mixture had been steam-heated
for 40 days and nights.

The ceremony culminated with a pitcher of fresh muron being combined
with the old in a gigantic engraved silver caldron and stirred with an
assortment of religious relics: a cross believed to contain a fragment
of the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified; a foot-long iron tip
of the lance believed to have pierced Jesus’ side, and a life-size
gold-plated ‘Right Arm of St Gregory the Illuminator’ said to be
embedded with a fragment taken from St. Gregory’s grave.

When clergy bring back muron to their home churches, its arrival
process, as Arzoumanian described it, is "a beautiful tiding for our
communities." The interplay between past and present continues when
churches hold special ceremonies in which urns of water are anointed
with a small drop of muron.

Congregants are invited to scoop up samples to take home or to drink
then and there.

"It’s important to be a part of the muron process," Derderian said. "It
really takes you back in time."