Armenian priests journey for jars of holy oil

Times Staff Writer

Every seven years since AD 301, priests from around the world have trekked to the ancient Cathedral of Etchmiadzin in Armenia to retrieve jarfuls of 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 them back to their respective dioceses.

Prepared in a massive silver caldron, the mixture of herbs, flower extracts, spices, wine and pure olive oil was 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 usually travel home with their portions cradled in their arms because muron, according to tradition, can be handled only by ordained clergy.


That all changed late last month when the ancient tradition met with a 21st century obstacle that has been 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,” recalled His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, which is based in Burbank. “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 on Tuesday when priests from churches across Southern California gathered around a massive oak table in his Burbank 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 in black robes got up 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 of muron 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 symbolizing the Holy Spirit that visited Jesus.

Over the next seven years, the muron will be used -- a few drops at a time -- primarily for christenings in Armenian churches here and 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 muronized.’ ”

The origins of muron are as old as the Armenian Church, which was established in the early 4th century by St. Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of Armenians. He also established the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, one of the oldest cathedrals in the world.


St. Gregory, according to tradition, blended the first sample of muron there as a unifying religious symbol of forgiveness and peace, and as a medicine for healing.

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.

To outsiders, the incense-tinged gatherings of celibate Armenian Church clergy with their pointed black hoods, towering miters and golden staffs can look very strange. But for congregants and clergy, they are essential ingredients of a critical religious event.

The ceremony culminates with a pitcher of fresh muron 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-sized 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 Sunday when churches throughout the Western Diocese’s 11-state region will hold special ceremonies in which urns of water will be anointed with a small drop of muron.

Congregants will be 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.”