Father Filotheos
Abbot of Toplou Monastery

Our national poet, Odysseas Elytis, wrote a poem claiming that "If you deconstruct Greece, you will find it is composed of an olive tree, a vine and a ship, which means that Greece can be recreated out of these three".

As one part of the triptych that comprises Greece, the olive tree has tirelessly and patiently connected over the centuries the faraway past with the present and the future under the sun-drenched Greek sky. It connects Ancient Greece, with its spirit and wisdom and the Olympian Pantheon of Gods, to the Christian Greece of modern days and the Eastern Orthodox religion.

Simple folk here sing that
"O olive tree, blessed be the earth that nourishes you
and blessed be the water you drink from the clouds
and thrice blessed He who sent you
for the poor man's lamp and the saint's candle-light".

The olive tree appears to hail from the East, from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, from whence it was brought to Greece. According to the Ancient Greek Myths, it was Heracles who, having completed his twelve labours, transported the first wild olive tree and planted it at Ancient Olympia, and it was he who first crowned the victor of a foot race with the olive branch. Subsequently Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, victorious in her combat with Poseidon, gave her name to the city of Athens accompanied by the gift of the first cultivated olive tree, full of flowers and fruit, that rose from the holy rock, at the point where she struck it with her spear, an eternal symbol of wisdom, strength, fighting spirit, prosperity, supplication and a global symbol of peace.

The olive tree is the holy tree of all religions, from the days of idolatry up to the times when the monotheistic religions sprang up around the Mediterranean and particularly for the Christian faith. The olive tree is the living hymn of God's creation. Its evergreen leaves denote Immortality. It is the holy tree beloved and claimed by all the civilizations of the Mediterranean, from antiquity to this day. It is a centuries-old tree that brings to mind Noah's Arc, the wisdom of Athena and the garden of Gethsemane. There, centuries-old trees survive from the times of Christ, bearing testimony to the presence of Our Lord, who shortly before His Passion blessed them with His prayers and drenched them in the rivers of perspiration from His face.

The poet uses verse to give us the story of the olive tree:

"I am the honoured olive tree,
Wherever I may find my home,
My fruit will surely grow,
And deep into my great old age,
I find no shame in labour.

I am the honoured olive tree,
Here deep within my shadow
Christ came to rest
And His sweet voice was heard
Shortly before he was crucified".

The golden green extract of the fruit of the olive tree was always honoured as lamp fuel and food but also was considered to have strengthening qualities and was, therefore, widely used in baths, gymnasia and stadiums, for rubs and for wounds and generally to serve as a remedy and meet every need.

Homer extolled "the unctuous oil" with which his heroes were anointed after bathing. Plato praised the oil as it "succoured pain", giving rest to pain and fatigue. According to Lucian, Solon pointed out to Anacharsis how the Greeks trained their bodies "anointing them in oil and massaging them in order to improve their tone".

Oil was always widely used by the Ancient Greeks, both in their religious worship and in their answer to their everyday needs. Olive oil was used to anoint the statues and altars of the gods, the sacrificial animals before they were slain in the rite, the sick for therapeutic reasons, and the bereaved as an indication of mourning. It was offered as a libation offering to the gods and the dead and was burned in sacred lamps at the temples.

All three major Mediterranean religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, make reference to the sanctity of olive oil, which was widely used in their rituals.

In the Old Testament the "green olive, fair and of goodly fruit" is a common image in many passages of the Holy Scriptures, expressing optimism for the future, the blessing and grace of God's beneficence.

According to Genesis, after the Flood, Noah sent forth a dove out of the Arc, which "came in to him in the evening; and lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth." (Genesis. 8:11).

Therefore it wasn't the return of the dove that made Noah joyful, but rather the "the olive leaf".

Its presence signalled an end to evil, acting as a message of joy, jubilation, peace, calm, salvation from the Flood, but also a symbol of victory.

In Exodus, God commands Moses to prepare the "holy anointing oil". This he proceeded to do mixing olive oil with myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus and cassia in order to anoint the offering (Exodus, 30:22-25).

In Leviticus, (2:1) God himself indicates the form of meet offerings "And when any will offer a meet offering unto the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he hall pour oil upon it…".

In Psalm 44:8 , God's use of oil is a special blessing in reward for virtue: "I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him".

The Prophet Isaiah included oil as a means of treatment, by hand manipulation and cataplasm (K. Kalinikos).

In Leviticus, the priest, when cleansing a leper should pour oil with his left hand and dip his right finger in the oil and with this should sprinkle the offering seven times and later anoint the lobe of the right ear of him that was to be cleansed, the thumb of his right hand and the great toe of his right foot.

In Psalms 51 and 52 "the green olive, fair and of goodly fruit" is a valuedimage full of hope for the future with the blessing and mercy of God.

In the Christian faith, oil is used to light and to bless, and is one of the major sources of food for humans, together with wheat and wine.

The ecclesiastical historian and author Eusebius provides testimony that "Man being well-born and under God honoured, exceptional and particular food, bread and wine and oil, bread to steady and strengthen the heart, wine to give pleasure to the soul and oil brighten the body and make it lighter, by curing it of the pains of fatigue".

In the blessing of the bread we pray: "Bless, o Lord, the wheat, the wine and the oil and multiply these in the houses of those who offer Thee these gifts".

In Psalm 93 , the Prophet David praises God and sings "…And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.".

Thus these three dietary staples are always present at tables both rich and poor. However, during preordained periods of fasting, as well as on those days of the week that are considered days of fast, it is forbidden to consume wine and oil. In contrast, what is recommended is to anoint the face and head in oil, to display humility, "and you who fast, anoint thy head in oil and bathe thy face therein, so as not to appear to people as fasting but rather with your father in hiding".

In the Gospel according to Luke, the parable of the Good Samaritan, recounts how he went to him who had fallen among thieves and who was wounded, "went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine".

Oil was introduced into sacred worship at the time of the Apostles and has been used ever since. It is always considered as a sign of "divine mercy", the spiritual power and liberal supply of the grace of the Holy Spirit to the faithful and of the gifts of God. In Psalm 128 the Prophet David composes a wondrous picture of family love, joy, creativity, liveliness and peace with the blessing of God, wishing to him that "fears" God "blessed be … thy children like olive plants about thy table". This image became the content to the orthodox Mysterion or Sacrament of marriage: "and raise these as cedars of Lebanon, as a fruitful vine … and let them see the sons of their sons, as olive plants about their tables…"

Paul the Apostle, in his Epistle to the Romans uses the term "olive tree which is wild by nature" to refer to the Gentiles, while the "good olive tree" signifies the Christians, whom he entreats to humility and retaining the simile: "Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee".

The grafting that will transform "the olive tree which is wild by nature" into a "good olive tree" is achieved by the first in line of the sacraments or mysteria, that of the Holy Baptism, which forms the official entrance of the initiate into the Church in which he will henceforth be numbered. The sacred baptismal font is thus justly known as "the mother of adoption".

Christ issued the Commission and exhortation to his followers: "Go ye therefore and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19-20). This institutes the first sacrament or mystery of our Faith, that of the holy Baptism, and marks our entrance into the Christian life and society.

Thus the holy Baptism marks the start of the path that will familiarise us with God, will rid us of original sin and all sins committed prior to baptism and forms the gateway to eternal life and heavenly legacy.

Amongst the material elements of the sacrament are water and oil. The cleansing qualities of water against bodily dirt are known to all. This same water, "by the Grace of God" and by the descent of the Holy Spirit cleanses the soul of dirt, cleansing of sin, as it was initially specially consecrated with grace and divine power by the use of special blessings, and the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The oil, which is carried by the godparent, is first thrice blown upon by the priest, (who represents Christ, imbuing in the individual who is baptised with a new life in Christ) rekindling the first breath of God on the fact of Adam at the moment of creation. The oil is blessed with the sign of the cross and the "mystical oil or oil of covenant or oil of gladness" as it is called into the sacred baptismal font, the celebrant chants Hallelujah, which in Hebrew means praise to the lord and descent and dissemination of divine grace.

The same oil is also used by the celebrant to anoint the candidate for baptism on the forehead, to bless his mind, on the chest and between the shoulder blades, to bless his heart and his life, on the ears, to strengthen his hearing of the divine words, on the mouth, in order to confess the truth, on the hands, so as to work in virtue, on the feet to run on the straight road of virtue.

Then the body of the candidate for baptism is rubbed all with the sanctified oil.

According to the Varverinian Book of Blessings (Euchologion) and the ancient rite of the church, the deacon would anoint the entire body of the person being baptised with this oil of gladness, while today it is habitual for the godparent to perform this act. The anointing of the body with oil symbolises on the one hand that the candidate for baptism is being grafted, as a branch, from the "wild olive tree" onto the "good olive tree". On the other hand it signifies that the candidate is entering the "stadium of virtues" as an athlete of God and thus the rich mercy of God is poured upon him.

Thus in the mysteries (sacraments) of baptism, chrismation and that of the holy unction or anointing that follows, we see vividly the strong presence of the fruit of the olive tree, on the one hand to complete the sacred sacraments of our faith and on the other hand to perfect those participating and placed under the aegis of God's grace.

It is worth reading an excerpt on the holy oil of the baptism "He also blessed this oil with the strength and energy and divine inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, in order to become the chrismation of imperishability, a weapon of justice, a renewal of the soul and the body, a deterrent to each diabolical action, to rid men of evil, to all those chrismated with this in faith or those who partake of this".

The candidate is then immersed in the baptismal font. There follows the anointing with the Holy Chrism or Myron.

The holy Chrism or Myron is prepared using thirty six aromatic substances that are mixed in olive oil and wine, where the oil signifies the boundless mercy of God and the fragrances the manifold and diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The holy Chrism is prepared by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in a ceremony that commences on Holy Wednesday, in memory of the fallen woman who anointed our Lord with myrrh and is completed in the Divine Liturgy of Holy Thursday, where it is consecrated by the Patriarch, having been thrice sealed, reading the consecrating blessings after which it receives the descent and divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The mystery of the holy Chrism, was ordered and handed down to their successors by the Apostles, as witness by Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, who was their contemporary.

In the Apostolic Cannons, the Apostles order us and simultaneously teach us that "first you anoint with holy oil, then you baptize in water and finally you seal in myron". (Apost. Decr. VI, 22 Migne 1, 1012).

This chrism is given to the person baptized in "replication of that with which Christ was anointed" by the descent of the Holy Spirit once He had risen from the waters of the Jordan.

On the day of the Pentecost, this spirit descends as "cloven tongues, like as of fire" on the Apostles, who by placing their hands on the heads of the candidates for baptism would transmit the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Later on the Apostles commanded that in place of the laying on of hands, the candidate for baptism should be anointed with the holy Chrism, and this would impart the gifts of the Holy Spirit. First the neophyte is anointed on the forehead (the celebrant intones "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen."), in order to rid him of the stain of the original sin or other sin and to see with a clear and luminous face the glory of God.

Second, the neophyte's ears are anointed that he may listen to the words of the Holy Mysteries.

Third, on the nose, that he may smell the sweet scent of the faith and may himself form "a pleasant scent welcome to the Lord".

Fourth, on the chest, that he may wear the chest-plate of the faith and can withstand the machinations of the devil.

Thus the chrismation, as we are assured by the Apostles, is "the reassurance of the testament", the "seal of the covenant" it is the "carving" by which our shepherd, our Lord Jesus, marks his obedient sheep.

Orthodox Christians do use the Holy Chrism and consequently oil, in other cases besides the rite of baptism, for a second time subsequent to the baptism, in order to complete this. In the Psalms of David the prophet king, we can read that "I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him". The veneration of the responses during the vespers of the liturgy of the Saints Constantine and Helen mentions "… from which you have received the knowledge of the spirit, been anointed by a priest and crowned in oil, you have supported the church of God…".

During the consecration of a holy church, the Holy Table is anointed, as is the entire Church, the Holy Chalice, the Plate, the holy icons, the bells and the other ecclesiastical vessels.

Oil is also used to light the church, going back to the first Christian times and particularly in the catacombs. In the lamps of the Saints, to light, as a gift of supplication and offering, and for the use of this oil by the healthy and the sick for blessing and curing. "do not choose to use something else as an offering other than oil in the lamp and incense at the time of sacred gift".

Saint Chrysostom talks of the lamp to be found in the church as being "far more honest and pleasant to the senses that that which shines in a house" and explains the reason for this by adding "it offers cure to those who with faith and the timely anointing by oil seek to rid themselves of ailment". (Chrys. Oration XXII to Matthew).

The offering of oil to the church should be pure, virgin olive oil and under no circumstances should it be oil of a lower quality or seed oil.

There are many instances of the sick being cured by unction (anointing with oil) and prayer recorded in the many biographies and lives of saints. Our Holy Church, from these aforementioned instances makes widespread use and places primary consecrating and therapeutic importance to the use of oil in the sacrament/mystery of the Holy Unction or Euchelaion ("oil of prayer"), as it is usually called, in order to cure the souls and the bodies of the faithful and to guard them. This is characteristically noted in the first chant from the canon of Arsenius: "with the oil of mercy, O Lord, Thou who always fills with joy the souls and the bodies of mortals, and guards with oil the faithful, Thou also be merciful now, on those who come to Thee through the oil".

The sacrament of Euchelaion or unction or anointing with oil is the seventh of the mysteries or sacraments that were given by Jesus Christ, through the Apostles, for the salvation of mankind. Euchelaion means Holy Oil, or Holy Unction.

It is a sacred ceremony and a form of divine mercy, whereupon with the use of suitable blessings, the Holy Spirit is called upon and descends, transforming ordinary oil into holy oil, which will cure physical and spiritual ailments and offer divine mercy.

James, the brethren of Jesus exhorts us: "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him".

In the Gospel according to Saint Mark (Chapter 6), we are informed that when the Lord sent the Apostles forth two by two, in order to preach in the towns, they "anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them".

The Apostolic Canons include a small blessing which calls upon Our Lord God Sabbaoth, through the ministrations of Jesus Christ to bless the water and the oil and to provide this with "the power to create health, to throw off sickness, to cast out demons, to persecute ill thoughts." (Apost. Canon H 29 Migne 1, 1125).

Approximately half a century later, in the prayer book of Serapion there is a blessing "to the oil of the sick or to bread or to water" and more complex: "we call upon You, who has all the power and strength, … and pray, that Your Only Son will transmit healing power from the heavens to this oil, that it will give rise to those anointed therewith, who will thus partake of Your creations, to send off all sickness and all weakness, to act to keep off every demon, to separate every unclean spirit, to aphorise every cunning spirit, to send off every fever and tremor and every sickness, in good grace and the forgiveness of sin …".

We are taught by James, the brethren of Jesus, that the purpose of the Unction, beyond the healing of bodily sickness, is to forgive sins, where the Holy Oil or Unction occurs conjoined with the mystery of penance.

In the liturgy of the Holy Unction, in the Euchologion or Book of Blessingsthat is currently in use, we find corresponding blessings.

"Thou who art without beginning, thou who art without heir, o Saint of Saints, thou who sent forth Thine only Son, to cure all illnesses and weakness of our souls and bodies, send down Thine Holy Spirit, and bless this oil …".

Another blessing: "O Lord, make this oil an oil of rapture, an oil to sanctify, a royal vestment, an armour of fortitude, that will avert all diabolical action, a seal with no ill intent, that offers tranquillity of the heart, an everlasting delight, so that with this those anointed with this oil of rebirth will be terrible to those who act against them…".

Yet another prayer: "Holy Father, cure your servant (…) of this ailment of the body and soul that he contains and revitalise him, by the grace of your Christ".

From all the aforementioned, we have observed the use of oil in the Orthodox Church for its faithful, to cure and sanctify the soul and the body and as a weapon in the field of battle against evil and ammunition for eternal life. All that remains is to note that at the final moment of exit from the present life, to the life that lies beyond the grave, our holy Church once more ushers off its faithful, sprinkling them with the oil of compassion and the gift of divine mercy, which is no longer a weapon or ammunition for the commencement of spiritual combat, but rather a mark of the end of exercising and a symbol of the outcome and finish of the battle with evil.

However, this oil is the simple oil that gives light to the dead man's candle and has no relation, either to the oil of gladness, used before the baptism, nor with the oil of the Holy Chrism or Myron, which is used after baptism, or even with the oil of the Euchelaion or Unction.

The cultivation of the olive tree and the care for producing olive oil of the first quality, has always concerned the church, and continues to concern the church in general and certain monastic brotherhoods in particular.

It is typical that one of the cognomen of the Panayia, the Virgin Mary, is ελαιοβρύτισσα (elaiovrytissa: she who is the wellspring of oil, the source from which oil springs), after a miracle she performed of filling an empty vessel with oil, on Mount Athos.

Our own Holy Monastery of Panayia Acroteiriane, continues a tradition of cultivating olive trees and producing olive oil, that is many centuries old. We feel our great debt to society, to the inhabitants of the region and have recently proceeded to create a group of organic producers in the region of Sitia, leading the way in the traditional methods of olive cultivation, processing and standardising organic olive oil in installations owned by the growers, which, beyond covering the material and spiritual needs of our surrounding area, is successfully exported to several other countries, promoting our region internationally, and contributing further to the expansion of organic cultivation, with the purpose of upgrading the quality of the product, the organic protection of the consumer, the biodiversity of the environment and the financial empowerment of the producer.