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Holy Wednesday: Greek Orthodox Recall Christ’s Anointing with Myrrh

Holy Unction
Service of the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Credit: ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888 / CC BY-SA 3.0

On Holy and Great Wednesday, Orthodox Christians remember the act of Christ’s anointing with myrrh by a “sinful woman” before his crucifixion. It is also a time in Greece when churchgoers anoint themselves in a solemn evening service.

In the afternoon, in all churches, the mystery of the Holy Gospel is told once again, and then the events of the Last Supper and the washing of the Apostles’ feet by Jesus are recalled. The faithful also remember the nefarious plans of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus.

On Wednesday, people remember the woman who anointed Christ’s feet as he sat in the house of Simon. In the hymnography of the day, the account in Matthew 26:6-13 is combined with that in Luke 7:36-50 (cf. also John 12:1-8).

A second theme of Holy Wednesday is the agreement made by Judas with the Jewish authorities. The repentance and complete redemption of the sinful woman stands in stark contrast with the tragic fall of the once-chosen disciple.

The triodion, or short hymn, makes it clear that Judas perished not simply because he betrayed his master but because, having fallen into the sin of betrayal, he then refused to believe in the possibility of forgiveness: “In misery he lost his life, preferring a noose rather than repentance.”

How Orthodox Christians observe Great Wednesday

Many Orthodox Christians also choose to fast on Holy Wednesday in remembrance of Judas’ deal with the authorities to betray Jesus to them for thirty pieces of silver.

On the evening of Holy Wednesday, the sacrament of the Anointing of the sick is usually celebrated in church and all parishioners present are anointed whether they are physically ill or not.

It is believed there is no sharp line of division between bodily and spiritual illnesses, and this sacrament confers not only bodily healing but forgiveness of sins, thus serving as a preparation for the reception of Holy Communion the following day.

Holy Wednesday in Greece

In Greece and all Greek communities around the globe, liturgies for Holy Wednesday include recitations from the Gospel of Matthew, telling the story of what took place two days before Jesus Christ was crucified.

Church members receive Holy Unction on the evening of Holy Wednesday with an anointing oil that many people believe has therapeutic, healing powers.

Occasionally, in certain areas or villages, women bring a large bowl of flour to the Holy Unction and place three candles in it to burn during the ceremony; the following day the same flour is used to make sweets for Easter.

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