It was customary among the Jews for guests invited to a banquet to anoint themselves with oil. From this we may understand why the Church consecrates her oils in the last week of Lent. Two spiritual banquets are preparing. Many that were without the pale of truth are to be brought into it by baptism, during the Easter time, and made to sit down with the children of the household at the banquet of Christ’s Holy Faith. The Holy Ghost, too, is getting ready a feast of sevenfold gifts and twelve precious fruits of holiness. [The Gifts of the Holy Ghost are : Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and the Fear of the Lord. His Fruits are: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Benignity, Goodness, Longanimity, Mildness, Faith, Modesty, Continency, and Chastity.] For the happy guests, called to these two divine banquets, Mother Church prepares the fragrant oils of gladness where with they may be anointed.
The use of oil in consecrating persons and things to God is sanctioned by His own divine Word. The 30th chapter of Exodus relates in detail the manner of preparing the holy oil of unction with which the priests of the Lord, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, and all the sacred vessels were to be anointed. And thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: the oil of unction shall be holy unto Me throughout your generations.
The Catholic Church has derived the sacred rite of anointing from Apostolic practice and teaching: And they (the twelve Apostles) cast out many devils and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them (St Mark, vi., 13.) Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (St. James, v., 14.)
The civil and religious unctions of the Jews were shadows and types of the sacramentals unctions of the Church of Christ, not the originals from which the latter are copied. Yet even the festal unction alluded to above was approved by our Lord: When thou fastest anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou appear not to men to fast (St. Matt, vi., 17, 18.)
The Oils used by the Church in the administration of the Sacraments and in other sacred rites are three in number: Chrism, the Oil of Catechumens, and the Oil of the Sick.
Chrism is a word of Greek origin, meaning both substance used for anointing and the action of anointing, The epithet Christ, applied to our Lord, is of the same derivation; it signifies the Anointed One. He was so called because He was Priest, King and Prophet, and therefore worthy of a triple unction, for at all times and amongst most nations those destined to any of these high offices have been consecrated with oil. O God! Thy God hath anointed Thee with the Oil of gladness above Thy fellows (Ps. xliv., 8.)
Chrism is composed of olive oil mixed with balsam. It is the remote matter of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and is also used in one of the ceremonies following the administration of Baptism. The Oil of Catechumens is so called because with it the catechumens [Catechumens was a name given, in the early Church, to those who were preparing for Baptism by receiving “catechetical” or oral instructions in the truths of faith.] were anointed before they received solemn Baptism. It is still used in one of the preparatory rites of that Sacrament. With this oil the hands of the priest are anointed during the ceremony of his ordination. The Oil of the Sick is, like the preceding, the product of the olive, and constitutes the remote matter of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
The reverence which the Church shows to the Holy Oils is second only to that paid to the Blessed Eucharist. In all her ritual there are few ceremonies more solemn than that whereby they are sanctified. She chooses for it one of the greatest days in her calendar, that on which she commemorates the institution of the Most Holy Sacrament, Thursday of Holy Week; and she entrusts its performance to Bishops, the Princes of her hierarchy. We find in the works of the Fathers the most Magnificent eulogies of the sacredness and efficacy of the Oils. St. Cyprian informs us, in one of his letters, that the Chrism was consecrated on the same altar on which the Eucharistic Sacrifice was offered. St. Cyril of Jerusalem compares it to the Blessed Eucharist. “Think not,” says this holy Father, “that this perfume is something common. For as, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, the Eucharistic Bread is no longer common bread, but the Body of Jesus Christ, so the holy perfume is no longer a profane thing, but a gift of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost.”
Among the Christian communities of the East the Chrism was prepared with the greatest care and consecrated with the utmost pomp. The Greek Euchology, or ceremonial book, reckons no less than forty different perfumes which enter into its composition. In fact, some of the Patriarchs thought that so solemn and imposing a rite as the sanctification of the Chrism ought to be performed only by themselves, not by the Bishops under their jurisdiction. Hence for a time the Patriarch of Alexandria used to consecrate the Chrism for all the dioceses of Egypt. One of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, who held that see about the year 1200, refused permission to the Primate of Bulgaria and Wallachia to bless the Chrism. When the Bulgarians re-entered the communion of the Mother Church of Rome, Pope Innocent III. Declared that, according to the rubrics of the Roman Ritual, [Rubric is from a Latin word meaning “red.” The rules prescribing the manner of performing the sacred ceremonies of divine worship are so called because they are written in red characters.] not only the Primate, but also the suffragan Bishops, had full authority to consecrate all the oils on Holy Thursday.
The great reverence in which the Eastern schismatics hold the Sacred Oils may have its origin in a beautiful legend, but one which the Church has not sanctioned. When Mary Magdalen poured her alabaster box of perfumes over our Saviour’s head and feet, the Apostles gathered together many drops of the precious oil. They carried a portion with them on their missionary travels; and kept it in the churches which they founded. It was mixed with the first oil that was blessed by the prayers of the Church, and thus all subsequent oils have indirectly touched that which was sanctified by contact with the Sacred Body of our Lord.
During the first four centuries no fixed day was set aside for the blessing of the oils, but, in the fifth century, it became customary to perform the ceremony on Holy Thursday. The Council of Meaux, in 845, added to custom the sanction of positive law.
The weak-minded and uninstructed sometimes carried their false reverence for the Holy Oils to a sinful excess. Against the abuses which arose in consequence the Church ever protested, and she enacted the severest penalties against those of her ministers who should connive at them. There were some who thought that a criminal might entirely hide his misdeeds from the scrutiny of justice, if he could succeed in anointing himself with Sacred Chrism or drinking it. The sentence decreed against a priest who should give it to him for this impious purpose was deposition and the loss of his hand: manum amittat. And to prevent the evil inclined from sacrilegiously stealing the Chrism, the priest was ordered to keep it under lock and key.
The abuse of a sacred thing does not derogate from its claim to legitimate honor, and this the Church has always shown to the Oils. She desires that only those who have received ecclesiastical ordination should touch or carry the vessels in which they are contained, and that they should be kept with the greatest care and reverence. It is in accordance with the spirit of the Church, manifested by her councils and the writings of her most approved rubricians, to keep the Oil of the Sick in an enclosure or, tabernacle in the wall on the gospel side of the sanctuary. In many places it would be impossible, or at least, inconvenient, to observe this direction, yet it shows the greatest reverence due to the Oils.
The symbolical meanings of the Holy Oils are many and beautiful. Oil naturally tends to spread and diffuse itself, and thus it is emblematic of the manifold graces diffused through the heart by the Holy Spirit. It softens and makes supple that which is hard and stiff; so, too, the unction of Sacred Chrism renders our hearts tender and pliable to the inspirations of grace, destroying in them that obstinacy which resists the Holy Ghost. The athleteæ of ancient times used to anoint their bodies with oil, that they might combat the better in the games. The Church anoints her children in Baptism to prepare them for their life-long wrestling against the powers of darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places, not for a corruptible wreath of laurel, but for a never-fading crown of glory. She anoints them at the moment of death to strengthen them against the last decisive charge of the army of hell.
Oil burns with a pure bright ray: the holy unctions light the fires of divine love in the soul, and their pure flames shed round the child and the soldier of Christ a lustre of virtue which blinds and dazzles the scoffing infidel, but leads the earnest enquirer from the mazes of darkness into the kingdom of Christ’s true light.
Balsam, one of the ingredients of the Chrism, has also its appropriate symbolism. It represents the spiritual fragrance and sweetness dwelling in a sanctified soul, and which irresistibly tend to diffusion. As well might the perfume of the flower remain hidden in its chalice as the odor of virtue be confined to the heart which is blessed with it.
Only the olive, of all trees, has the privilege of supplying oil for the sacred rites of religion. It was the silent witness of our Lord’s agony in the garden of Gethsemani, and its roots were bedewed with His Precious Blood, It is an evergreen, and it lives for centuries, O! that the souls once signed with the unction of the Spirit in the Holy Sacraments might never wither and dry up, might never lose the life-imparting sap of Christ’s grace! Then like their Lord and Master would they be the green wood, not the dry, rotten branches fit only for eternal fire.
The olive-branch is the symbol of peace and reconciliation. The dove bore it back to Noah, and it was a sign to the Patriarch that God was about to make a new covenant with man. The olive-branch which Christian painters sometimes put in the hand of the Archangel Gabriel announcing the Incarnation to the Blessed Virgin, tells of the advent of the Prince of Peace. Now Peace is one of the fruits of the Holy Ghost. When He sanctifies the soul by the Sacramental unctions, He fills it with ineffable peace.