On solemn Holydays, the faithful of the Byzantine Rite are anointed with holy oil and receive a piece of bread blessed for this sacramental on the vigil of the feast. This venerable custom among the Ruthenians is known as “Mirovanije” or an anointing. It is a remnant of two distinct practices of ancient times: the all-night vigils held in the church and the lighting of the oil lamps in front of the icon of the Feast. In order to better understand this relatively simple ceremony of the anointing, an explanation of the all-night vigil with Litija and that of the lighting of the lamp of oil in front of the icon of the feast is necessary.
1. St. Basil the Great (d. 379) writes in his Epistle 207 that the faithful prepared themselves for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday with an all-night vigil which served as an “expression of their repentance.” In Jerusalem, the all-night vigils for the festive days were interrupted by candle-light processions to the various Holy Places consecrated by the suffering and death of our Divine Saviour. The remnants of these processions to the Holy Places are the prescribed processions around the church on Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, etc.
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) introduced similar processions throughout the streets of the city in Constantinople. (cf. Sozomen, Eccl. History, VIII, 8) They continued to be held especially on the occasion of public calamities such as earthquakes, pestilence, war, etc. to implore God’s help and protection. Throughout the procession, the celebrant invoked the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the various Saints to which the people responded, ” Lord, have mercy.” This public prayer was of a penitential character.
In the Byzantine Rite a special ritual, combining these two candlelight processions, the festive of Jerusalem and the penitential of Constantinople, was developed into “Litija,” the name taken from the Greek “lite” meaning an earnest prayer or supplication.
Originally, on the more solemn holydays the people from the various churches of the city assembled in the public square for prayer and singing hymns. Litija was celebrated late in the evening after the Vesper service. Following this, the faithful returned in procession to their respective churches and continued with the celebration of the morning service, i.e. the Matins.
2. Patriarch Philoteus of Constantinople (d. 1379), in his liturgical reform, limited these Litija processions to the narthex or entrance of the church, the place originally assigned to the penitents. Simeon of Thessalonica (d. 1429) comments that the prayers of Litija were to be recited at the entrance of the church in order to express the penitential disposition of the faithful as that of the Publican or the Prodigal Son. (cf. On the Holy Prayer, ch. 339) For this reason, the liturgical rubrics prescribe that the ekteny of Litija should be recited in the narthex of the church. (cf. Ordo Celebrationis, Rome 1944, n. 57)
Litija developed as a part of the all-night vigil, combining the evening service of Vespers with those of dawn, the Matins. St. John Chrysostom expressed his admiration for the people who spent all night in church, making ” sacred vigils, tying day to the (preceding) night;” and who were not frightened off by the “dark of night, sleep, or any other need.” (cf. IV Hom. on Is. 6:1, 1) During the sixth century, the full development of the all-night vigil took place in the monasteries where, towards midnight at the conclusion of the Litija, a sober repast was served consisting of a piece of bread with oil and a glass of wine that was blessed by the celebrant. During the repast, the reader continued to read the writings of the Apostles. Immediately following the meal, the monks resumed their services singing Matins.
In the Middle Ages, when monastic services were introduced into the parish churches, the vigil services were considerably shortened and the repast was omitted. Consequently, the prayer for the blessing of the food for the repast was modified into a prayer for a good harvest with wheat added to the food to be blessed. Thus, since the fourteenth century, bread, wheat, wine and oil are usually blessed at Litija.
3. Since the Apostles “anointed many sick people with oil and cured them” (Mk. 6:13), the Christians considered blessed oil as having the divine power of healing. This was also true of the Saints. St. Jerome (d. 420) testifies that “many bitten by serpents had recourse to St. Hilarion who touched their wounds with consecrated oil and they recovered.” (cf. St. Jerome, Life of St. Hilarion, ch. 32)
Some of the Saints used the oil from the lamps that were burning in the Holy Places (e.g. st. Sabas) or in front of the holy icons (e.g. st. Nilus) for the anointing of the sick. Among the ancient liturgical formularies, there is a special prayer for the anointing of the sick with the “holy oil taken from the lamp” (cf. Goar, Euchologion, p. 678). St. John Chrysostom made mention of the fact that the faithful used to anoint themselves with the oil from the lamps burning in the church: “Many of them, who anointed themselves with (this) oil in faith, have dispelled their diseases.” (cf. 32 Hom. on Mt., 9) In Europe, however, olive oil was a scarce commodity so candles were used instead, even in the vigil lamps. Consequently, the oil which was blessed at Litija was used to anoint the faithful.
4. The service of Litija is usually celebrated after Vespers on the vigil of the more solemn Feastdays of the Church . After the impetrative ekteny, while the faithful sing the special Sticheras of Litija, the celebrant proceeds in procession to the entrance of the church. After the completion of the stichera, he intones various petitions to which the people respond with a multiple (12 times) “Lord, have mercy.”
Following this, while the faithful sing the Stichera with Versicles, the celebrant and his assistants proceed to the Tetrapod upon which a Litija tray, called ” Litijnik,” is placed containing five loaves of bread (prosphora), a dish of wheat, a glass of wine and a glass of oil in preparation for the blessing.
During the chanting of the festive Troparion, which is taken three times, the celebrant incenses the tetrapod from all four sides three times and takes the Prayer of the Blessing of the Bread. (cf. back cover) The Mohylian Liturgikon (Kiev 1629) contains the following remark: “Be it known that the bread which has been blessed (at Litija) preserves people against all kind of evil if it is taken with faith.” Concerning the foods blessed at Litija, the Liturgikon admonishes the priest to: 1. Use the blessed oil for the anointing of the people as they come (at the conclusion of the services) to kiss the icon of the feast; 2. Consume the wine with reverence since it is blessed; 3. Cut the bread into pieces and give it to the people as ‘antidoron,’ 4. Preserve the wheat for sowing, or make flour from it. Finally, the Liturgikon reminds the priest: “Following the prescription of Nomocanon, the priest shall not dare to use the bread and wine of Litija for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.”
5. “Mirovanije” or the anointing of the faithful takes place at the end of the services as the faithful approach for the “veneration (kissing) of the icon of the Feast,” which is usually displayed on the tetrapod. “Standing at the side of the tetrapod and holding a container with holy oil,” the priest “blesses the people by anointing their forehead.” (cf. Goar, Euchologion p. 7-8)
As the priest anoints the forehead of the faithful in the form of the cross, he greets them with the words, “Christ is among us!” to which they reply, “He is and He shall be!” During the Christmas season, the priest greets the faithful with the words, “Christ is born!” and the people answer “Glorify Him!” During the Easter season, the customary greeting used is “Christ is Risen!” and the response is “Indeed He is Risen!”
The Church teaches that in conferring her blessings (sacramentals) on the faithful, their faith plays an essential role in their efficacy as confirmed by our Divine Savior, “Daughter, your faith has restored you to health.” (Mk. 5, 34) By tracing the sign of the cross on the forehead during the anointing, the priest indicates that all divine favors come to us through the salvific power of Christ, Who continues to be present with His Church, since “Christ is among us!” (Mt. 18, 20) And the faithful, in turn express their faith in Christ’s presence and assistance by answering, “He is and He shall be.”
After the veneration of the icon of the feast and the anointing, the faithful receive a piece of the bread (prosphora) blessed at the Litija which, if they “consume (it) with faith gives them many graces, health, and other (spiritual) goods.” (cf. Simeon of Thes., On Holy Prayer, ch. 342) The blessed bread is a symbol of Christ, the “Living Bread” (In. 6, 51), Who gives us both physical and spiritual life. Consuming this bread “with faith” we express our trust in Christ that He will provide us with the necessary food for our body (referring to the multiplication of the bread in the prayer of blessing) and all the graces needed for the salvation of our immortal soul. (In. 6:5; 51)
In times gone by, when people seemed to have a stronger faith and greater trust in God, they were healthier, stronger and much happier. They relied more on God’s blessings even for their physical health than on medicines and drugs. They believed that “all things were possible to him who had faith” (Mk 9, 23) and they also believed in the power of ” Mirovanije.”
Do we possess such an all-encompassing faith in God? Can we regain such a strong and deep trust in God? We must try!
The next time we come for “Mirovanije” – to be anointed on our forehead with blessed oil – let us remember that through the holy oil Christ’s healing power is touching us. Let us also remember that by taking the blessed bread (antidoron) we come closer to Jesus Christ, our “Living Bread,” who indeed “gives life to the world.” (In. 6, 33) And let us firmly profess our faith in Christ’s presence among us by answering in an audible voice. “He is and He shall be.”