Wild Lectionary: Balm in Gilead

Close up of oils on altar

Proper 20(25) C

By Laurel Dykstra

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? Jeremiah 8:22

Jeremiah’s exile lament uses the language of health and healing to speak of a return to faithfulness. The phrase has become an expression for a universal cure.

On the territory of Coast Salish peoples, lower mainland British Columbia, a few of us from the Wild Church community Salal + Cedar have begun a tradition of wildcrafting the sacramental oils used by the churches in our diocese. This is a small act of locally rooting and rewilding our liturgical practice.

Lori Snyder teaching youth to identify medicinal plants

Local medicinal plants are gathered as we prayed outdoors over the fall and winter: poplar buds, rosehips, cedar. Métis herbalist Lori Snyder taught us to harvest the plants and prepare the oils. The base we use is olive oil, which is not native to this region so we purchase, Zatoun, a fair trade Palestinian product. It is very beautiful to work with our hands and the smells of the wild plants. The oils are blessed by our bishop at a special mass during Holy Week.

Oil of Chrism is the oil used to consecrate someone or something to divine service. It is used at baptisms, confirmations and ordinations. Since at least the sixth Century Balsam of some kind has been used in Chrism Oil.

The identity of the biblical Balm or Balsam from the mountainous region of Jordan is uncertain. Balsam is a common name for several resinous, sweet smelling plants. The healing properties of Balsam were highly regarded by Jews, Muslims and Christians each with different folk wisdom and stories. The North American Balsam Poplar or Cottonwood is a fast growing wetland tree, which shades salmon streams. Populus means the people’s tree and was so called because of its universal medicinal use by Indigenous people and settler herbalists. Salacin in the leaves, buds and bark is a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. Our Oil of Chrism is infused with balsam resin from poplar buds. The oil is also infused with wild rosehips, an anti-inflammatory, immune system booster and high in Vitamins A and C. The oil is an opaque dark reddish green, with a sharp, resin scent.Poplarcottonwood 001

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

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