LESSONS FROM LITURGY: Oil — Not Just for Dinner
Father Thomas Pressley
/ Categories: Opinion, Commentary

LESSONS FROM LITURGY: Oil — Not Just for Dinner

By Father Thomas Pressley

Anointing with oil: what makes oil such a sacred substance within Catholicism?

 Let’s start by looking at the Sacred Chrism, a special oil used to consecrate things and persons to the Lord.

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Bishop Golka gathered the priests at St. Mary’s Cathedral to renew their priestly promises and bless the Holy Oils. During this Mass, called the Chrism Mass, three deacons each carry a vessel of olive oil — yes, common olive oil — to the altar and present it to the bishop. He then blesses each oil for a specific use and purpose. First, he blesses the Oil of the Sick, used to bring healing to the sick and elderly, cleansing them from sin and uniting them in a special way to the cross of Christ. Then he blesses the Oil of Catechumens, which strengthens those about to be baptized in their pursuit of salvation, protecting them from spiritual attack and the discouragement of the enemy. Finally, he blesses the oil from which this Mass receives its name: the Sacred Chrism.

Why oil, you ask? Why not water, or wine? Using oil as a most sacred form of consecration dates back to the beginnings of our salvation history. After witnessing the heavens open at Bethel, Jacob pours oil onto the rock he used as a pillow to designate it as “God’s house” (Gen 28:22). Following the directions of the Lord given on Sinai, Moses consecrates the tabernacle and everything intended for the divine worship with the “sacred anointing oil” (Ex 30:25).

In addition to objects and places, people were anointed to fulfill certain tasks and offices. Moses vests Aaron as high priest and anoints him with oil to consecrate him to the Lord (Lev 8:12). Both David and later his son Solomon are anointed to become king over Israel (1 Sam 16:13; 1 Kg 1:39). Even the prophet Elijah is told to anoint his successor Elisha (1 Kg 19:16). The anointing oil of the Old Testament sets a person apart for a role and mission as a priest, prophet, or king.

Something unique happens during the blessing of the Sacred Chrism. The bishop mixes and stirs balsam into the olive oil, then he breathes into the oil. As the Spirit is often described as the breath of God, the bishop’s breath seems to prepare the oil for the Spirit. During the consecration of the oil, the gathered priests extend their hand in blessing to join their bishop in the epiclesis, begging the Father to send his Holy Spirit to consecrate the oil for sacred use.  Following the consecration, the oil has changed. St. Cyril of Jerusalem compares this change to the Eucharistic consecration; the oil is no longer ordinary but in a mysterious way holds the presence of the Holy Spirit, a divine presence. 

In this way, Jesus Christ himself is anointed both by oil and by pure Spirit throughout his life. In the New Testament, when, he is baptized by John in the Jordan, the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God descends on him in the form of a dove. In his catechetical lectures, St. Cyril describes this event: “Christ was not anointed by an oil or by a physical perfume given by the hand of men. But the Father . . . anointed him with the Holy Spirit” as proclaimed by the apostles after Pentecost. Shortly before his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus receives another anointing when Mary anoints his feet and the fragrance of the ointment fills the house (Jn 12: 3,13). When read through the lens of salvation history, Jesus’ anointing shows his identity as the true priest, prophet, and king who reveals God and his will to the world.

If the Old Testament uses sacred oil to consecrate persons in their mission for the Lord, if Jesus Christ is anointed with the Holy Spirit at the beginning of his public ministry, and if the Sacred Chrism somehow contains the presence of that same Spirit, what does it mean when a Christian is anointed with this holy oil? The newly baptized receives an anointing with chrism on the crown of their head and at confirmation on their forehead. Priests have their hands anointed at their ordination, and chrism is poured over a new bishop’s head and down his face and neck at an episcopal ordination.

The Christian’s anointing signifies his entrance into the mission of Jesus Christ. We who are anointed with this holy oil share in his role as little Christs. We are marked and anointed as priests, prophets, and kings with Christ and set apart for sacred service to the Lord. The kingly mission begins with ourselves, ruling our passions and directing our attention towards the good, reigning in our own bodies and homes to create a small kingdom for the Lord. As prophets, we strive to learn the truths of the faith, knowing our story presented through the scriptures, and unabashedly proclaiming this truth with love. As priests, we can offer each sacrifice of our day as an offering to God for the remission of our sins and the salvation of the world.

What a glorious life as a Christian! We share in the mission of Jesus Christ. God himself has anointed us with the “oil of gladness” and sent his Spirit into our hearts (Ps 45:7).

As we enter confirmation season and witness the flowing of the Sacred Chrism, the holy oil of the Spirit himself, may we recall our own anointing and strive to be that which we are: little Christs for God.

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