Oils Ain't Oils: The Chrism Mass

Next Thursday evening, 29th March, the Archbishop will bless the holy oils in the cathedral at a special service known as the Chrism Mass.

The use of oil in ritual is ancient and widespread. There are many references to it in the scriptures, for example Psalm 33: “..like sacred oil on the head flowing down Aaron’s beard to the collar of his robe”; the word “Christ” literally means “Anointed One”; chrism has been used in coronation ceremonies for many centuries.
In the Catholic tradition three different oils are used. Anointing with chrism occurs in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and ordination as well as the dedication of churches and altars. The oil of catechumens is used to anoint people who are preparing for baptism and the oil of the sick, as the name suggests, is used in the sacrament of anointing the sick.
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 the oils will be ready for the Easter sacraments. Oil is an especially important liturgical symbol during the Easter season which is the traditional and appropriate time for adult initiation, children’s confirmation and first communion, and the baptism of infants.
The holy chrism used in several Queensland dioceses, including Brisbane, is a blend of aromatic oils, fragrances and pure olive oil. The final product is a rich, red-coloured oil with a characteristic perfume. Once an anointing has taken place, the church is filled with a beautiful 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.
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. Because of the importance of the oils, it does not seem appropriate to hide them away in a cupboard or drawer in the sacristy.

The Book of Blessings states: "The vessels used to hold the holy oils should be worthy of their function and be closed in such a way as to prevent the oils from being spilled and to ensure that they remain fresh".
Oil needs to be used well: carried in its special container, poured out into a shallow dish and applied liberally. 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.
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 we need to let them flow freely.


Elizabeth Harrington