We recently moved to a new state this past winter. One of the ways I enjoy settling into a new home is to see which plants are native to the area so I know what will comfortably grow in my own yard. I find myself often bringing out our plant identification books with us when we go to play outside. We've learned we have maple, oak, sycamore, crab apple, catalpa, black walnut, and mimosa trees along with an abundance of honeysuckle in our yard.
There is also a large bush with purple flowers in our yard that I had not identified until a couple of weeks ago while we were at our local botanical garden. We were walking down a path and were drawn to a bush covered in butterflies and bees when I suddenly realized it was the same bush as in our backyard. I eagerly sought out the plant identification label and saw that it was hyssop.
I was doing some research last week when I read, "You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I will be cleansed; You shall wash me, and I will be made whiter than snow." (Psalm 50:7)
I immediately changed directions with my research and started looking up everything I could find on hyssop and Orthodox commentary on this psalm. It's one of those moments where all the pieces were already in place but then, in an instant, they all fit together perfectly to let you see all the various connections. An "ah ha" moment.
In Biblical times, hyssop was used for its medicinal and cleansing properties. It is mentioned several times in the Bible. Hyssop was used in Leviticus (14:1-7) to cleanse lepers and to purify homes from mold (14:33-53). It was also used in Exodus (12:22) as a brush when God instructed the Israelites to mark their doorposts with lamb's blood in order for the angel of death to pass over them. Hyssop is also mentioned in Psalm 50:7 (see above). King David is pleading with God to cleanse him spiritually as he seeks forgiveness for his sins. Hyssop is mentioned also in John (19:28-30). Jesus says, "I thirst" and a sponge soaked with sour wine was presented to Christ on a stalk of hyssop for Him to drink.
Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth, explains in his podcast, "Let My Prayer Arise":
The first phrase, then: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean.” This first act in David’s hope invokes the Old Testament priestly practice, in Exodus and Leviticus, of using the hairy leaves of hyssop as a liquid-retaining sprinkler, and shaking either blood or water on a person or an object to indicate that God will do his cleansing work on it. While this sprinkling reveals God’s merciful and real intention that creates a new possibility and hope, the sprinkling does not necessarily complete what God will do. In a sense, this may represent an aspect of holy baptism, where God decisively and truly acts in uniting the person being baptized to Christ the Savior through the Holy Spirit. The great intention of God’s mercy rests on that person. In fact, there is a new identity. But a life is now to be lived, and God’s baptismal grace will continue to be needed and applied and worked out to bring the person to theosis.
Which leads us to the next phrase: “Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.” This next phrase is not just poetic repetition. It is a progression in God’s cleansing work. This wash, as one teacher put it, is not a polite rinse, but a thorough scrub which presupposes the object of washing is in a thoroughly disheveled state. The intensity of this rough scrub, if you will, is seen in verse two: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity.” This needed work of God is most important for us to understand, both for ourselves and for those times when we are responsible to serve in the restoration of someone who has been ensnared in sin, such as is described in Galatians 6.
Extensions and Connections for Further Study:
Parish or Home Garden and Bible Study
"first I do, and then I learn about what I did” - John Boojamra, Foundations for Christian Education
“Experience before understanding, participation before explanation, is advocated as the way of catechesis in the Church.” – Anton Vrame, The Educating Icon
A great beginning to this lesson is planting a hyssop bush in the yard of our parish or in our home garden. We can encourage our children to check on the progress of the hyssop's growth. Plan a day where you bring a blanket to sit on it in front of the hyssop bush along with a drink and read about its role in the Bile while the children can see the hyssop in front of them.
In this way, this activity can be done with a wide range of ages - the young children will enjoy planting the hyssop just as much as the older kids. The young children can listen to the Bible stories being told and remember that hyssop is connected to the Bible while the older children gain a deeper understanding of those connections and meaning.
You can order Syrian Oregano (Bible Hyssop) here.
How is hyssop used for medicinal purposes?
In A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, she explains in detail how to used hyssop in a variety of ways - from an infusion to broth to essential oil. It is mostly used for colds and congestion.
"Orthodox life is a seamless garment, every aspect is connected to every other aspect." - Sister Magdalen, Children in the Church Today
The word hyssop means "holy herb". There are many different varieties of this plant. It has been debated whether or not the hyssop varieties found commonly in the United States are the same as to the plant referred to in the Bible. Some believe the hyssop in the Bible is actually what is known as Syrian Oregano or Bible Hyssop. Regardless, I think the overall lesson to be learned is on the same level whichever variety you use.
- What does it mean when we talk about different varieties of the same flower or fruit? For example, you can have a bowl containing all apples but they might be Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Pink Lady, Gala, etc.
- Learn about the different varieties of hyssop - in the United States and the Middle East.
- What are the commonalities and differences between the varieties of hyssop commonly found in the United States and Syrian Oregano?
- Where did hyssop originate? How did it find it's way to the United States?
What is leprosy?
Using the Internet or library as a research tool:
- What causes leprosy?
- How is it transmitted?
- Is it curable today?
- Does it still exist today?
- What does it look like?
Bees and Butterflies
While exploring a park, garden, or your own yard, take pictures of the butterflies and bees feeding on the hyssop. Then use the Internet or a nature identification book and learn the types of butterflies and bees in your photos.
A continuation of this activity would be to learn more about all butterflies and bees.
A Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
A Carpenter Bee
Orthodox Curriculum: Worship, Formal Learning, Praxis
Dr. Constance Tarasar explained in her doctoral dissertation about a framework we can all use for creating Orthodox curriculum. She proposed worship, formal learning, and praxis (living our faith) as the three ways to synergistically further our own knowledge about Orthodoxy as well as how to teach it to others.
Worship: attending and participating in the services
Formal Learning: expanding your own knowledge or explaining it to others
Praxis: practicing our faith (living it in our daily life)
For this lesson on hyssop:
Worship: reading and listening to psalms in the services
Formal Learning: discussing the meaning of hyssop in the context of the Bible
Praxis: reading the psalms at home during prayer, growing hyssop in our garden, going to confession