Why We Anoint with Oil
Oil as a Symbol
We are all familiar with oil, in one form or another, in all aspects of our daily lives. We use it for cooking, heating, lubricating, and in a thousand and one other ways. Without it there would be no industry, no transport, and we would have to do without many of the 'plastic' goods we take for granted.
Oil has always been the 'life-blood' of society, a fact of which the Jewish people of the Old Testament were very aware. The oil which the Jews knew, and which is still in use today, is olive oil and it is the same oil which we use in Church. For the Jews a plentiful supply of oil, along with corn and wine, was a sign of God's favor. Oil was, and still is, a sign of God's blessing because it represents all that is best in life, God's generosity to the people He loves.
Oil in Church
In Church we use oil in two ways: it can be burnt it in votive lamps, and is used to anoint people. Both uses are recorded in both the Old and New Testaments.
Within the Church of England anointing with oil fell from favour for several hundred years. However, its importance in recent times has been rediscovered and returned to its proper place in the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation along with the Sacrament of Unction (the anointing of the sick), and in the Ordination of priests.
As a symbol oil reminds us of God's boundless generosity towards us, and of His never-ending love of us. When we use it to anoint people in Church, it is more than merely a symbol, or reminder. It becomes one of the channels by which God's power comes into the world, by which He blesses us with His Holy Spirit.
The oil is essentially no different from any other olive oil, but it is made special by being set aside specially for God's purposes. God takes the ordinary things of this world, in this case olive oil, and makes them holy. He works through material things to show Himself to the world and to bring people back to Himself.
The Three Oils
Oils used for anointing are specially blessed for this purpose by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday, so called because one of the oils used is called 'Chrism.'
The oil of the sick
The letter of St. James (5:14) says, "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the Lord will raise him up." The rite of anointing the sick in mind or body, those about to undergo surgery, those nearing death, is one of God's gifts available to His people through His priests.
This kind of anointing is itself a Sacrament. Those who receive it can be confident that God will respond to the prayer of faith.
The oil of catechumens
Oil of the Catechumens is the oil used during baptism; it is believed to strengthen the one being baptized to turn away from evil, temptation and sin. The catechumen is someone who is preparing to become a Christian through baptism, is also anointed as a symbol of being the heir of the Kingdom of God, as kings and queens were anointed at coronations, and empowered for their Christian life as prophets were anointed for their ministry.
Oil of Catechumens is to help strengthen the person about to be baptized, and prepare them for the struggle of the Christian life, the way a wrestler in ancient Greece and Rome was anointed before a wrestling match.
Anointing at Baptism is a symbol which points to the gift of the Holy Spirit, which comes to the newly baptized person as it did upon Christ at His Baptism in the Jordan. In Baptism we are "born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5), the Holy Spirit which is the gift of Christ to His Church.
The head of the person is anointed with the oil of Chrism.
The Holy Chrism
The oil used to anoint people at their Confirmation and to anoint priests at their ordination is Holy Chrism. It is also used in the consecration of altars and Church buildings. In Anglo-Catholic parishes it is additionally used by bishops when they consecrate chalices and patens. 'Consecration' means making holy or setting apart for God's purposes. It differs from the other two oils in that it alone is not pure olive oil. A scented balsam is mixed with the oil to make the Chrism.
How the Oil is Used
The oil is usually applied using the right thumb but can also be poured on. When applied with the thumb, it is usually applied in the form of a cross. This is to remind us that all blessing come from the crucified Christ who is the source of all healing and life for the world.
When anointing accompanies Baptism, the cross is marked in oil on the baptized person's forehead. In this way they are 'sealed' with the Holy Spirit as a reminder of Revelation 7:3 in which the servants of God are "sealed upon their foreheads." In Baptism we are made servants of God.
Confirmation candidates and the sick are also anointed with the sign of the cross on their foreheads for the same reasons. The sick are also anointed, as the need arises, on the infected part of their bodies. In this way their prayer is acted out.
In the Sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination the anointing is in addition to the action of "Laying-on of Hands'. In the Sacrament of Unction the anointing with prayer is at the heart of the rite, and although accompanied by the 'Laying-on of Hands', is itself the essential element.
God chooses the ordinary things of this world, and by His Grace makes them extra-special. He uses them to make His presence felt in the world. He does this when through the Holy Water of the Font He gives new and eternal life to His people. He does this supremely when He takes the bread and wine at the hands of a priest and returns them as the Body and Blood of Christ. He does this when, by the means of Holy Oils, He pours His healing and life-giving Spirit into the Church and upon her members.