Q: Archbishop J, why does the Church bless oil in Holy Week
At the Chrism Mass every year, the bishop blesses two oils and consecrates one. These three oils are the essential elements of the sacred work that the Church will do for the year to come.
We are a sacramental Church and through these sacred signs, God does the work of salvation in and through us human beings.
God takes what is very ordinary—bread, wine, and oil—to accomplish what is extraordinary: claiming us for Himself, cleansing us of sin, setting us apart as His own possession. God does more! Through the oil we are healed, consecrated, and set aside for sacred mission.
With the bread and wine, we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. The oils of Holy Thursday are essential for the work of the Church and for drawing all people to salvation.
The Oils of Catechumens and of the Sick and Sacred Chrism are vital for us as Church in our ordinary ministry and mission. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The pre-baptismal anointing with the oil of catechumens signifies cleansing and strengthening; the anointing of the sick expresses healing and comfort. The post-baptismal anointing with sacred chrism in Confirmation and ordination is the sign of consecration. By Confirmation Christians, that is, those who are anointed, share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit with which he is filled, so that their lives may give off “the aroma of Christ” (#1294).
Without these oils, the Church could not accomplish God’s work of salvation; without them, so much of what we do could not be done.
Oil in the Bible
The Bible has several uses for oil. I will restrict myself to the prefiguring of the sacraments. The patriarch Jacob anointed the memorial pillar at Bethel (Gen 28:18) thus doing a sacred act sanctifying the place as the House of God. In consecrating a church, therefore, we use Sacred Chrism to anoint its walls.
Moses was instructed to blend a special anointing oil (Ex 30:22–33) to be used on everything that was set aside for holy use in the sanctuary. It was also used to anoint Aaron and his sons as priests.
This anointing was a consecration—setting aside for God. The text says: “It is holy, and it shall be holy to you” (Ex 30: 31). Thus, today we anoint persons, as at the ordination of a priest and the consecration of a bishop, and holy objects.
In the Book of Samuel, we learn that Kings were anointed to rule over the people. The Lord said to Samuel: “Fill your horn with oil and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons” (Sam 16:1).
We still use oil to anoint kings. Through baptism we are fundamentally changed. This happens through the anointing of chrism. 1 Peter 2:9 confirms this: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Oil a conduit of Grace
When a priest is ordained, one of the standard pieces of equipment he needs is an oil stock—a container that holds the three holy oils. These oils are sacred, set aside. They should be reserved in a special place in the church.
These sacred oils are not to be confused with the oils blessed by the priest and used by the laity in prayer.
The first are part of the economy of salvation that the Church has given us. The latter are signs that God uses. The first are used in sacraments; the latter are sacramentals.
In Exodus 30:32, Moses states that the oil used is reserved only for the priests and for consecrating sacred vessels. There were other oils in use in Israel.
The Oil of the Sick: The first to be blessed, it is used to restore the sick in body, mind, soul, and spirit. The Church sees anointing with oil as integral to healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord” (Jas 5:14).
The prayer of blessing is beautiful: “… send the power of your Holy Spirit, the Consoler, into this precious oil, this soothing ointment, this rich gift, this fruit of the earth.” This oil is essential to the healing ministry of the Church.
The Oil of Catechumens is used as a first anointing to bring someone into the Church. Again, the prayer is beautiful: “… give wisdom and strength to all who are anointed with it in preparation for their Baptism. Bring them to a deeper understanding of the Gospel, help them to accept the challenge of Christian living, and lead them to the joy of new birth in the family of your Church. Through Christ our Lord.” This anointing is part of the prayer of exorcism and the opening of the person to be fully receptive to God.
The Oil of Chrism is our most sacred oil. This one is consecrated by the bishop alone. It is used for Baptism, Confirmation and priesthood which are character sacraments. This means they can only be done once because they leave an inedible mark on the soul. No sin can erase them.
The prayer of consecrating is also wonderful and filled with rich symbolism: “Fill it with the power of your Holy Spirit through Christ your Son. It is from him that chrism takes its name and with chrism you have anointed for yourself Priests and Kings, Prophets, and Martyrs.”
The oils of the Chrism Mass are essential for the life of the Church and its ministry to each of us.
Reflect on the times in your life you were anointed with one or more of the sacred oils and ask God to show you the grace you received.
Ex 30: 22–33