Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's Holy Week Once Again

One week out of 52 is deemed 'holy' and we are in it, according to Christian tradition.  Death and ressurection, coinciding, incidentally, with the rebirth of nature after the long, cold death of winter.  A passion play in four days.

Of course, Christians weren't the first to think about the life-death-ressurection cycle.  Many cultures that predate Christianity performed rituals both at this springtime as well as the winter solstice, late December. One wonders which ancient culture was the first to recognize that the seed of the plant is the source of new life.

As is so common among tribes and communities, rituals arose that helped the people understand these 'mysteries' of life. Those pagan bonfires in late December 'brought back' the sun before it sank into the sea- before its light was extinguished by the ocean waters. It worked every time. Rejoice and be glad!

Gods and goddesses 'arose' to help tell the stories and with which to identify the 'greatness' of the mysteries of life. In those dim days before the secrets were unlocked by science, magic ruled the earth while, above it, the gods and goddesses ruled and caused those 'miracles' to occur. Unless one praised and adored these supernatural deities, they might become unhappy and turn on the lowly humans and bring wrath and destruction to the people.

Those pre-science days must have been frightful indeed. Every action or inaction might result in punishment by the gods who, in their perch, just above the cloud, watched every movement and marked the observed transgressions on clay tablets. 

The burning of incense somehow pleased the gods; perhaps it was the pleasant odor which rose to the sky to ameliorate the mood of the deity, to make him/her less punitive. The sap of the Commiphora myrrha tree seemed especially sweet and appropriate for deity-pleasing. It is this very tree from which the Greek god Adonis sprung to life from its trunk, having been conceived incestuously.

Myrrh was commonly used by the Ancient Egyptians as far back as 3000 B.C. They used it to embalm the dead, as an antiseptic, and burned it for religious sacrifice. King Tutankhamen was entombed with frankincense, a relative of myrrh.  The practice of embalming with myrrh was common through the 15th century. . This week in Christian churches, the incense of these trees will fill the air and lift the spirits of those in attendance [or cause allergic coughing]. This same myrrh was used to embalm Jesus in the tomb, mixing it with aloes, 'about a hundredweight.' The same frankincense and myrrh that was given to the baby Jesus at his birth. It is interesting to note that, in ancient Chinese medicine, used in concert, myrrh is "blood-moving" while frankincense moves the Qi.

As an altar boy in the 50's, I would scoop out the spoonfuls of the incense into the holders before mass and then watch it spread out on the burning coals, instantly releasing its perfume all about the altar. Magical stuff; great ritual. Those 'holy oils' used this week and throughout the year have been steeped in frankincense and myrrh. Powerfully spiritual resin indeed.

And so goes this Holy Week- steeped in ancient tradition- to tell the story of the seed's life, death and resurrection once again to the 'faithful' who want to believe that there is more to life than just living and dying.

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