Basil Tea

Armodoxy for Today: Basil Tea

One of the customs around the September celebration of the Holy Cross, is to pass out basil to the congregants. The feast is called the “Exaltation” or “Elevation” of the Holy Cross, recounting that the Holy Cross of Jesus was imprisoned by enemies of Christianity. When the Cross was recovered (7th century) it was raised in a procession to proclaim its freedom from captivity. Today, in the Armenian Church, the symbolic procession takes place, where a cross is elevated along with basil. As tradition tells us, when the Cross of Christ was found there was basil growing all around it. Contrary to what has been propagated by popular folk myth, there is no such thing as blessing basil on this feast. The basil merely is placed on the altar, decorating the altar crosses as a connection with the story of its loss and recovery.

The blessing that does take place is a product of the power of the Holy Divine Liturgy. This special mystical power of the Liturgy is not spoken about often enough. During the Holy Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, prayers are offered, the saints of the Church are remembered and asked to intercede for us, the sacred hymns from early centuries are chanted and sung, and the request of the faithful assembled are voiced or voicelessly heard, and the Holy Spirit is invoked to transform the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Presence of Jesus Christ Himself is at the Divine Liturgy! And so, in the Presence of Jesus Christ all become blessed and cleansed. Even more, the same Divine Liturgy has been celebrated in the church for years, decades and in some places for centuries. The incense which carries the prayers up to heaven, has been absorbed into the church walls, along with the prayers and hymns. Your parents, your grandparents, your great grands and theirs are all part of this celebration. The small piece of basil sitting on top of the altar, and everything in the Presence of God has now been blessed.

Early on in my ministry when I was serving at a parish in Cupertino, California one of the young men in our church succumbed to an illness which incapacitated him. He was hospitalized and went unconscious. The doctors did not know what to make of it. They administered tests but were confounded. They began feeding him intravenously because he no longer was accepting anything by mouth. His father, a devout and believing man notified me and asked that I pray for his son.

It was the Feast of the Cross and I was speaking to my grandmother on the phone. She was the greatest influence on my life. She lived two doors down from our house while growing up and since taking this pastorate in Cupertino, there were now 400 miles that separated us. But thanks to telephones – yes, landlines with dials – I’d stay in touch and would call her regularly, especially either before or after church services. That Sunday, we spoke and in the conversation I mentioned the plight of this young boy. As I spoke about him, I recalled that his father was from Los Angeles and, in fact, lived in the same neighborhood as my grandmother. I told her who he was and of course, she knew him and his family.

Without hesitation, she told me to take the basil from the Holy Divine Liturgy, boil it in water and take the “Basil Tea” to the boy in the hospital.

I did exactly as she told me. I put Basil Tea in a thermos. It was old-school, with the shiny glass innards and the plaid exterior with a screw-on cup on top. I rushed it to the hospital and kept it concealed under my raincoat. Yes, there was a degree of embarrassment walking into a modern hospital with an ancient remedy prescribed by granny.

At the hospital, we prayed and I gave tea to his father to administer to the boy. The tea was the first liquid (or solid) to enter his mouth in nearly two weeks.

The next morning I received a call. It was his father telling me that his son had come-to. He finished the thermos of tea and was now starting solids. The doctors and medical staff were amazed and dumbfounded.

The basil was definitely blessed, but so was everything else in the church. It is a simple lesson that Jesus teaches us, that life itself is a blessing. The sacred and holy are all around us, only asking us to acknowledge, not with a nod, but by living the blessing.

Let us pray, O Lord, Jesus Christ. You came to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. Each of us, with our baptism through the Holy Font have become members of the Kingdom. Today I pray the prayer of the Holy Apostles, “Increase our faith” so that we may be worthy members of Your Kingdom, to see the Blessings that are around us. Amen.

Cover Photo: Courtesy of Vahe Sargsyan

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