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OILS AIN’T OILS
The use of oil in ritual is ancient and widespread. There are many references to it in the scriptures, as in Psalm 33 (“..like sacred oil on the head flowing down Aaron’s beard to the collar of his robe”); “Christ” literally means “Anointed One”; the oil of chrism is used in coronation ceremonies.
In the Catholic tradition three different oils are used – chrism for baptism, confirmation and ordination as well as for consecrating churches and altars; the oil of catechumens, as the name suggests, for baptism; the oil of the sick in the sacrament of anointing the sick.
Oil is an especially important liturgical symbol during Easter because it is the privileged time for adult initiation, children’s confirmation and first communion, and the baptism of infants. The entire community renews the promises of baptism at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday.
Thus the Chrism Mass at which the oils are blessed and the chrism is consecrated (because chrism is used in the rites which impart a sacramental character) takes place in the cathedral towards the end of Lent so that they will be ready for the Easter sacraments.
When taken to the parish, the oils should be placed in handsome glass containers and stored in an ambry, a receptacle in a church for its supply of holy oils.
The holy chrism used in several Queensland dioceses, including Brisbane, is a rich blend of aromatic oils, fragrances and pure olive oil. The final product is a beautiful red-coloured oil with a characteristic perfume. Once an anointing has taken place, exposing the oil to the air and warming it, the church is filled with a pronounced aroma. One early church writer described the perfume of chrism as “the Easter-smell, God’s grace olfactorally incarnate!”
One of the ingredients of chrism is myrrh which has a long history of use in worship. With cinnamon, it was the principal ingredient in the holy chrism used by Moses to anoint the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle), the Ark of the Covenant and the altars for worship. Myrrh was used to anoint prophets. In Matthew’s gospel it is presented as a gift to the infant Jesus as a symbol of his prophetic ministry.
As with all symbolic actions, rituals using oil must be performed strongly and with power so that God’s action is revealed more clearly. When we are caught up in sacramental signs, we begin to touch the spiritual reality they contain.
Oil needs to be used well: carried in its special container, poured out into a shallow dish and applied liberally. For me, the most memorable moment at Bishop Michael Putney’s ordination to the episcopate was the lavish pouring of oil over his head by Archbishop John Bathersby, so much so that Michael’s skull cap kept sliding off afterwards. More than any of the many words used in the ceremony, this ritual stated powerfully that as the Church anointed Michael with oil, he was anointed with the spirit of God.
Through the liturgy of the Church, Christ acts to strengthen and protect, to heal and restore, to set apart and seal for ministry. The holy oils open up these realities for us – so let them flow freely!