Reflections on Myrrh and Advent

On December 2nd 2017, the Anima Women’s Team organized its first live Advent Retreat at St Philip’s parish North Blackburn. The women shared a rich and prayerful time, especially thanks to Father Paschal Corby OFM (Conv)’s reflections, and to the Parish of St Philip’s. Special thanks go to Fr Nicholas Dillon, the Parish Priest, who organized stunning liturgical music.

In the afternoon of that Retreat we shared a reflection about the Patron Saints of Anima who are Christ’s Women Disciples. Below is part of my talk about the connection between myrrh and being “myrrh-bearer.”

Pope (and Saint) John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieribus Dignitatem), is a foundational inspiration of the Anima Women’s Network which was first begun in 2003. Happily, many of the women who attended that first Anima Conference (May 2003), have continued to stay in touch and some are here at our Retreat today.
In the Letter, John Paul II reminds us:

“From the beginning of Christ’s mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity.
It must also be said that this is especially confirmed in the Paschal Mystery, not only at the Cross but also at the dawn of the Resurrection. The women are the first at the tomb. They are the first to find it empty. They are the first to hear … They are the first to embrace his feet (cf. Mt 28:9). They are also the first to be called to announce this truth to the Apostles (cf. Mt 28:1-10; Lk 24:8-11) (MD #16)

Various New Testament scenes, indicate that these women disciples, kept a courageous vigil at the Cross, when many of the apostles had fled in dismay. Some of these women became the first luminous beacons of the Resurrection.

In the Catholic tradition, and particularly in the Byzantine and Orthodox rites, women are honoured and each is remembered by name. There are many very beautiful depictions our saintly and biblical patronesses in Sacred Art and there are place names which are associated with post-Scriptural legends about the travels of some of them.

In Western art there is a focus upon the Three Mary’s, the Women at the Tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and Mary who is one of the mothers of the disciples. In Byzantine icons and in art inspired by the canon of this art, additional holy women disciples are sometimes depicted. These can include: Salome (wife of one of Herod’s household staff), Martha the sister of Lazarus and Mary of Bethany, Susanna and Joanna. They sometimes also appear with the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus- the Theotokos (The God-bearer).

In the East they are called the Holy Myrrh- Bearing Women – because the Gospels tell us they risked danger, untold grief and the unknown in order to take expensive spices and oils from their own stores to anoint the Saviour’s lifeless body.

The Holy Myrrh-Bearers, made up of women of different ages, vocations and histories, were disciples of Christ, drawn by concrete encounters with His saving love. They drew strength, healing and inspiration from Christ and brought to their discipleship a quality which Pope John Paul II calls in his Letter their “feminine genius.”

It is the aim of Anima, that taking inspiration from these women, we can encourage each other and be formed in an on-going way for faith and life- across our various age-groups, states of life and cultural experiences.

Is there a link between the myrrh, which our Patron women carried with them during the Paschal mystery, and this Season of Advent and Christmas? Botanically the fragrant granules, known as myrrh, derive from a spikey bush from the genus Commiphora, grows in harsh climes such as Ethiopia and across the dry Arabian regions. It is gathered by piercing the trunk of the bush, where the resinous sap seeps out and dries into red granules- called myrrh which was used for as medicine and perfume. There are references to myrrh in the ancient Egyptian courts. It was used in embalming and the anointing of the dead.

In the Old Testament, myrrh is mentioned several times: often in the context of priestly anointing. It was a precious substance that combined three very valuable properties- it was perfumed, it was preserving and it was a healing as a “costly” and ointment.
At this time of year, we hear of myrrh as one of “prophetic” gifts which the Wise men bring the Infant Jesus in Matthew 2:1- which links the joy of the birth of the Messiah with his kingly (gold), priestly (frankincense) and sacrificial Passion (myrrh).

In the Christmas and Epiphany carol we hear the dark and curious verses in the voice of one of the Wise Men:

Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

A bit daunting for Advent and Christmas you might think. It is a prophetic symbol, pre-figuring the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Myrrh is however also a gift. It is a purifying and healing sign of the work of the Messiah as well.

In Mark 15:22-23 myrrh is mixed with wine as a soothing anaesthetic and it is offered to Jesus on the cross, but he refuses this. Later, wealthy disciple Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepares balm and myrrh with which the Women “bear” to the Tomb.

Holy Myrrh-bearers also remind us of those other women, the Wise Virgins of the Jesus’ parable who are wakeful and prepared, but instead they have myrrh with which to anoint the Messiah the Bridegroom. This image would have resonated with the Jewish imagination about the preparations for marriage as both brides and bridegrooms (Song of Songs 3:6) were associated with the heady and purifying scent of myrrh.

The typology of myrrh and the preparation of Advent intertwine with our preparations to ready to receive the Lord, the Infant Lord, who is destined to become Lord of life, who overcomes death and sin. Myrrh is a fragrance of Resurrection.

~ By Anna Krohn