A Lowly Herb

February 25 2016 | by

PSALM 51 contains the phrase, “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psalm 51: 7). A familiar lavender or white flowered herb in many parts of the world, hyssop is a two to four foot tall sturdy plant, of which many varieties exist. Plentiful in the Middle East, hyssop treats flus, swelling, laryngitis, coughs, and toothache. Bound hyssop stems make sturdy brushes and scrubbers. Hence, hyssop can cleanse both the inside and the outside of the body.

Moses used hyssop as an asperges to consecrate both Scripture and the Israelites. “When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people” (Hebrews 9:19).

Jewish priests used hyssop as an asperges in the ritual cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14: 1-7). The officiating priest dipped a bunch of hyssop into a basin which contained water over which had been drained the blood of a sacrificed bird. The bloody water was then sprinkled seven times over the leper to be cleansed.

The Israelites used hyssop as a brush to dip into the blood of the Passover lamb, which was then smeared over the doorposts and lintels of Jewish homes so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ them during the final plague of Egypt (Ex. 12.22).


Lowly herb


Thus, while hyssop was used for medicinal purposes, in Scripture it is more commonly used as an instrument to sprinkle purifying blood. Hence, Saint Anthony sees hyssop as representing humility. Christ’s flesh was the instrument by which His Blood cleansed humanity. “The hyssop is a lowly herb that clings to the rock, and it represents the humility of Christ, who… came down from the height of heavenly glory to the humility of the flesh… He then brought down… the arrogance of the world to the lowliness of the hyssop, the folly of the Cross” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Messaggero di Sant’ Antonio Editrice, Vol II, p. 107).

In taking on human flesh from the Blessed Virgin and then dying on the Cross, Christ manifested the depths of humility. The cleansings mentioned in Scripture were humble acts that prefigured Christ’s death. The Letter to the Hebrews explains, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). When Christ’s side was pieced with a lance, blood mingled with water flowed out (John 19: 34) as a parallel to the Old Testament cleansings. Christ was killed at Passover, the ultimate Passover Lamb.

Saint John’s eye-witness account of the crucifixion reads: “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19: 28-30).


Innocent bystander


Saint Matthew notes that a bystander (not a soldier) offered the wine to Jesus while other bystanders admonished, “Leave him alone. Let’s see whether Elijah comes to his rescue” (Matthew 27:49). Saints Mark (Mark 15: 34-37) and Luke (Luke 23: 44-46) use similar wording. Used for expectorating mucus, hyssop was on Calvary to aid the crucified criminals in coughing up phlegm. Sour wine was both sedative and pain killer. Hyssop stalks were sturdy enough to hold a small sponge of wine and long enough to reach the mouth of a crucified victim.

Saint Mark mentions that soldiers offered Jesus the sour wine sedative prior to crucifixion, but he refused to take it (Mark 15.23). Saint Luke notes that mocking soldiers offered this wine to Jesus while he was on the cross, but he implies that Jesus did not take it (Luke 23: 36-37). Why, then, did Jesus take the wine offered by the bystander? Saint Anthony offers an insight.

“Hyssop is a herb used to purge the lungs. It grows on rocky ground, clinging to the stone with its roots. It stands for the faith of Jesus Christ…” (Sermons I, p. 296).

Referring to the smearing of the blood on the Jewish homes at the first Passover, Anthony tells us to take the bunch of hyssop – faith – “and dip it in the blood of Jesus Christ, and sprinkle it on the lintel and door-posts. This lintel is understanding; those posts are will and deed, which should be mindful of Jesus Christ.” (Sermons I, pp. 296-97)

In other words, we should immerse our Christian faith in the saving Blood of Jesus so that our will, deeds, and understanding form our faith in Christ’s sacrifice.


I thirst


In all four Gospels, we hear the forsaken cry of Jesus from the Cross: “I thirst.” This is the call that drove Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the streets to care for the abandoned dying. The soon to be declared saint once said, “Just think, God is thirsting for you and me to come forward to satiate his thirst. Just think of that!” and she then added, “Jesus is God. Therefore His Love, His Thirst, is infinite. He, the creator of the universe, asked for the love of His creatures. He thirsts for our love… These words, ‘I Thirst’ – Do they echo in our souls?”

Jesus refused the wine offered by mocking soldiers. But he took it when offered by a compassionate bystander who dared to defy both soldiers and populace. Could Jesus have cried out to elicit the public response of this man who, repentant of his sins, was being moved by the Holy Spirit to offer Jesus the only measure of comfort and contrition possible, some sour wine on a sprig of an expectorant herb?


Power of contrition


Bishop Youssef, Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, notes that Jesus chose the precise moment to die, the moment immediately after tasting the sour wine, “It is of significance for St. John to register that Our Lord bowed His Holy Head prior to dying. Thus our Lord demonstrated His total inclusive comprehensive deity as the Lord of all; unlike humans who, when dying, expire first and then bow their heads.”

Saint Anthony sums up what happened: “The completion of every good action is humility… God will not despise a humbled heart. Indeed, as Isaiah says: ‘The High and the Eminent that inhabiteth eternity dwelleth with a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” (Sermons I, p. 78)

How great is the kindness of God! How great is the dignity of the penitent! He who lives in eternity dwells in the heart of the humble and in the soul of the penitent! (Sermons I, p. 78)

With hyssop in hand, the bystander witnessed the death of God who had accepted his gift.


Updated on September 30 2016
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