The Mystery of Holy Oil II


II.  Historical Framework

Anointing the Sick was first referred to as a sacrament in a letter of Pope Innocent I to Decentius, bishop of Gubbio, in the year 416. Ironically, the sacrament is mentioned because Innocent advises that it not be conferred on those in the Order of Penitents, for they are restricted from other sacraments – of which the anointing is a “kind.” In ninth century Byzantium, St Theodore the Studite gives a list of six sacraments and includes “holy oil” among those, although whether he means the blessing of the oil used in various sacraments, or specifically the rite of anointing the sick, is an open question.i The monk Job, in thirteenth century Byzantium, lists penance and anointing as one sacrament, and makes room for monastic tonsure as a separate mystery; two centuries later, under the Turks, Symeon of Thessaloniki, singles out anointing as its own sacrament and treats monastic tonsure as a subset of penance.ii In the East, therefore, we see a certain relationship between penance, monastic life, and the anointing. All are considered as a means of curing the wounds of sin and in a certain respect, of preparing the soul for the next life. Similar views were also maintained in the West, and in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent treated Penance and Anointing in the same session (the fourteenth), even calling unction “the completion of penance,” although the council clearly distinguished the two as separate sacraments.iii

The mention of a rite in a papal letter presupposes the pre-existence of that rite, and the ecclesial administration of anointing was in fact mentioned long before the letter of Pope Innocent I. Its origin (or justification) can be traced back to two scriptural sources, the first in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus sends the Twelve to heal the sick;iv and then more explicitly in the letter of James.v Subsequent to this time, Origen and Ps-Hippolytus, among others, make reference to the ritual of anointing, linking it with forgiveness of sins. In the case of Origen, anointing is specifically referred to as the fulfillment (and it seems, an integral part of) of the rite of penance in the early Church.vi In this regard, we might note that schismatics (who had been validly baptized and chrismated before their schism) were readmitted into the Church by a ritual anointing, quite possibly by the same anointing used for penitents.vii These penitential anointings are presumably done publicly and by the clergy, although whether the bishop or presbyters are involved does nto seem to be clearly mentioned. Athanasios of Alexandria, however, in his Encyclical Letter to the Bishops specifically attests to priests administering the rite of anointing to the sick, pointing out that the faithful Catholics in Egypt “prefer to remain sick and to be in danger rather than have Arian hands laid on their head.”viii So it may be that in cases of bodily sickness, the priests administered the rite, but in cases of penitence, another regulation was followed. This, however, remains speculation.

 

Perhaps as a result of Arianism, Innocent I, in his aforementioned letter, writes, “Now there is no doubt that these words [in James] are to be understood of the faithful who are sick, and who can be anointed with the holy oil of chrism, which has been prepared by the bishop, and which not only priests but all Christians may use for anointing, when their own needs or those of their family demand.”ix Here we see two new elements emerge. First, the oil is to be blessed by the bishop. Secondly, and more importantly, that any of the faithful can administer the sacrament.

 

This practice of “lay anointing” was also advised by Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century, specifically in order to dissuade the people from turning to sorcerers for their cures. “How much more correct and salutary it would be,” the bishop of Southern Gaul writes, “to hurry to the church, to receive the body and blood of Christ, and with oil that is blessed to anoint in all faith themselves and their dear ones, for according to what James the Apostle says, not only would they receive health of body, but also the remission of sins.”x The mention of Eucharist in this context is interesting in that parallels other evidence for specific time and place when the oil to be used is consecrated, or at least distributed, which will be discussed below. Likewise, in order to keep the faithful from pagan rites, St Eligius of Noyon (also in the sixth century, but in Northern Gaul) advises the layperson “with confidence to ask the Church for blessed oil, with which he may anoint his body in the name of the Lord… and he will receive not only health of body but also of soul… ‘and all things whatever you ask for in prayer, believing, you will receive.’”xi This seems to have remained the practice on the Continent from the fifth to the ninth century.

 

Bede the Venerable, writing in early eighth century England, seems to take a different view of the appropriateness of lay anointing, and cautions that “one who suffers greater temptation should be mindful to cure himself with the help of many, and particularly with the help of older men (seniorum); nor should he refer the cause of his weakness to younger and less experienced men, lest perhaps he accept from them words of advice which are harmful.” Nevertheless, he admits the authority of Innocent I, and goes on to write that “not only presbyters, but… all Christians as well may use this same oil for anointing, when their own needs or those of their family demand. However, this oil may be prepared only by bishops. For the saying , ‘with oil in the name of the Lord,’ means oil consecrated in the name of the Lord. At least.” He goes on to say, “it means that when they anoint the sick man, they ought to invoke over him the name of the Lord.” Still, in continuing his commentary on the passage from James, Bede leans towards priestly administration of the sacrament, particularly in its confessional and penitential character with regard to more serious sins.xii

 

The Carolingian reform, which took the Celtic discipline for its ecclesiastical discipline, just as it took the Roman liturgy as the basis for its liturgical rites, began to impose greater uniformity on the administration of this rite. This meant not only admonishing the laity on its use especially at the end of one’s life, where it is explicitly linked with Viaticum and reconciliation,xiii but also in restricting the sacrament to the priests, who are to use oil blessed by the bishop.xiv Interestingly, a distinction seems to be made between chrism and “oil for the anointing of catechumens and the sick” in the Capitulary concerning Presbyters (dated to 810-813).xv This can also be seen when St Boniface (via a later Bavarian council) enjoins priests not to “set out anywhere without sacred chrism and blessed oil and the salutary Eucharist. But wherever, perchance, a request is made of them, let them be prepared to perform their duty at once.”xvi The Council of Pavia in 850 also reiterated that those in public penance should not receive this sacrament. It is during this same period that St Theodore lists “Holy Oil” as one of six sacraments in the Church.

 

In the politically and socially tumultuous twelfth century, the rite changed in both Byzantium and in the West. In the East, the medical guilds were given exclusive control of the hospitals by the emperors, and the church’s direct role in financing and supervising the hospitals came to an end. Left out of the institutional process of healing, the Church responded by enhancing “the liturgical form of the sacrament of healing [which] led to its separation from the context of the Divine Liturgy and to the formation of a service complete in itself.”xvii Patriarch Arsenios Autoreianos (1255-60) seems to have been the main revisionist in this regard, increasing the number of scriptural readings to seven (from an original two), and appointing seven prayers to be said; he is also credited composing several hymns specifically for the service of Holy Oil. In addition, he ordered that the sacrament be conducted by seven priests.

 

In the West, the scholastic doctors began to slowly restrict the administration of the sacrament to the dying, even inverting the order of administering the three last sacraments “so that unction received the climactic position in the administration of the last rites.”xviii Initially, of course, two positions – that the sacrament was chiefly for the sick, or that the sacrament was chiefly to prepare the person for the beatific vision – could be found side by side. The latter position was explicitly expressed by Master Simon in his De Septem Sacramentis. A twelfth century writer stated that “Every Christian is anointed three times: first, for his inception, namely in baptism; secondly, in confirmation, where the gifts of grace are conferred; thirdly, on departing (in exitu) where, if sins are present, they are remitted in whole or in major part.”xix William of Auvergne (d. 1248) compared the extreme unction to the preparations a bride makes before meeting the bridegroom in the bridal chamber.xx So we are witnessing a shift in the mystagogical aspects of the sacrament in an attempt to bring them into line with the other incipiently defined sacraments.

 

This image of preparing for the heavenly bridegroom was fully accepted by the later scholastic doctors such as Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus; their debates chiefly revolved around whether the remission of sins was the reality or the effect of the sacrament. Scotus, however, explicitly restricts the sacrament “to be given only to such a sick person who is no longer capable of sinning and who is in danger of death; nor is it to be given to anyone else, even though death is imminent for reasons other than sickness, as one undertaking a voyage or entering battle, because in such cases, no matter how imminent the danger of death, a man always has the use of his free will, and can sin afterwards, and to such as can still sin, it is not given.”xxi

 

In the fifteenth century, on the eve of the Turkish capture of Venetian held Salonica, Symeon of Thessaloniki added prayers for forgiveness to the Byzantine service of Holy Oil, to be said before the actual act of anointing. The number of scriptural readings also seems to have increased during this period, for a total of fourteen (seven Gospel readings and seven epistle readings), which is preserved today. (These additions were presumably not received by the Slavs until the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century.) In the fifteenth century West, the Council of Constance again affirmed the sacramentality of unction; but the Reformers of the following century reopened debate on the question. It should therefore not be surprising that the Council of Trent spoke very highly of this sacrament, calling it “the culmination not only of penance, but of the whole Christian life, which ought to be a continual penance.” The council refers its institution back to both Mark’s Gospel and James’ letter. It further teaches that “the matter is oil blessed by the bishop; for the anointing fittingly signifies the grace of the Holy Spirit, by which the soul of the sick person is anointed invisibly,” and “whose anointing wipes away sins, provided there are still some to be expiated, as well as the remnants of sin, and comforts and strengthens the soul of the sick person, by arousing in him great confidence in the divine mercy…”xxii The Council also emphases that duly ordained priests are the proper ministers of the sacrament, and that in the case of recovery, an anointed person may receive the sacrament again if he or she should fall gravely ill. The sacrament, however, should not be postponed until the point of death. Such was the position in the West until Vatican II, which returned to the early use of the sacrament as one befitting not simply those in their last illness, but any sick person. In 1972 Pope Paul VI instituted several changes to the rite, including permitting plant based oils other than olive oil to be used, reducing the anointing to the forehand and hands only (previously all five organs of sense were anointed), and directing that the prayer of anointing be said only once.xxiii

 

i Ep II, 165; PG 99:1524b.

 

ii Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. (1979).

 

iii Poschmann, Bernhard. Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. Herder and Herder, 1964.

 

iv Mark 6.13: “They [the Twelve] drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

 

v James 5.14-17: “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he as committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

 

vi Origen, On Leviticus, Homily 2.

 

vii This can be seen in one of Cyprian’s letters, though I cannot relocate the exact source. It would most likely be in his letter(s) to Pope Stephen. References to this use of the rite may also possibly be found in either Optatus or Augustine in their writings against the Donatists. I would further note that the use of the sacrament of anointing is one of three ways Roman Catholics are admitted into the Orthodox Church in the case of conversion. (Orthodox monks tend to oppose this method, however.)

 

viii Sacraments and Forgiveness, p289.

 

ix Innocent I, Epist 25, 8, To Decentius. PL 20, 559f. It should be noted, however, that it is in the context of an anointing by a bishop that Innocent calls the ritual a sacrament.

 

x Sermon 279, 5; PL 39, 2273 (ascribed to Augustine in PL).

 

xi On Correctness of Catholic Conduct, 5. (PL 40, 1172f; also in Agustine’s opus).

 

xii On the Epistle of James, 5. (PL 93, 39f)

 

xiii In the General Capitulary, the Capitulary of Aachen, and the Council of Mainz I in 847.

 

xiv Council of Chalon II in 813

 

xv Sacraments and Forgiveness, p290: “that on the day of the Lord’s Supper the presbyter should take with him two vessels, one for chrism, the other for oil for the anointing of catechumens and the sick, in accordance with the statement of the Apostle…”

 

xvi PL 89, 821 and 823.

 

xvii Health and Medicine in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p102.

 

xviii Sacraments and Forgiveness, p296.

 

xix PL 178, 1744.

 

xx Opera Omnia, 1, 2, 3. “for a bride never approaches the bridegroom without some preparatory ablutions and fitting attire… and since those who are about to die are like the bride who is about to enter the chamber of the bridegroom… it is clear to men of understanding how necessary and fitting is the sacrament fo the last hallowing.”

 

xxi On the Sentences, 4, dist 23, q.I.

 

xxii Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacrament of Extreme Unciton, 1551, Ch1 and Ch2, As quoted in Sacraments and Forgiveness, pp310-311.

 

 

 

Perhaps as a result of Arianism, Innocent I, in his aforementioned letter, writes, “Now there is no doubt that these words [in James] are to be understood of the faithful who are sick, and who can be anointed with the holy oil of chrism, which has been prepared by the bishop, and which not only priests but all Christians may use for anointing, when their own needs or those of their family demand.”ix Here we see two new elements emerge. First, the oil is to be blessed by the bishop. Secondly, and more importantly, that any of the faithful can administer the sacrament.

This practice of “lay anointing” was also advised by Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century, specifically in order to dissuade the people from turning to sorcerers for their cures. “How much more correct and salutary it would be,” the bishop of Southern Gaul writes, “to hurry to the church, to receive the body and blood of Christ, and with oil that is blessed to anoint in all faith themselves and their dear ones, for according to what James the Apostle says, not only would they receive health of body, but also the remission of sins.”x The mention of Eucharist in this context is interesting in that parallels other evidence for specific time and place when the oil to be used is consecrated, or at least distributed, which will be discussed below. Likewise, in order to keep the faithful from pagan rites, St Eligius of Noyon (also in the sixth century, but in Northern Gaul) advises the layperson “with confidence to ask the Church for blessed oil, with which he may anoint his body in the name of the Lord… and he will receive not only health of body but also of soul… ‘and all things whatever you ask for in prayer, believing, you will receive.’”xi This seems to have remained the practice on the Continent from the fifth to the ninth century.

Bede the Venerable, writing in early eighth century England, seems to take a different view of the appropriateness of lay anointing, and cautions that “one who suffers greater temptation should be mindful to cure himself with the help of many, and particularly with the help of older men (seniorum); nor should he refer the cause of his weakness to younger and less experienced men, lest perhaps he accept from them words of advice which are harmful.” Nevertheless, he admits the authority of Innocent I, and goes on to write that “not only presbyters, but… all Christians as well may use this same oil for anointing, when their own needs or those of their family demand. However, this oil may be prepared only by bishops. For the saying , ‘with oil in the name of the Lord,’ means oil consecrated in the name of the Lord. At least.” He goes on to say, “it means that when they anoint the sick man, they ought to invoke over him the name of the Lord.” Still, in continuing his commentary on the passage from James, Bede leans towards priestly administration of the sacrament, particularly in its confessional and penitential character with regard to more serious sins.xii

The Carolingian reform, which took the Celtic discipline for its ecclesiastical discipline, just as it took the Roman liturgy as the basis for its liturgical rites, began to impose greater uniformity on the administration of this rite. This meant not only admonishing the laity on its use especially at the end of one’s life, where it is explicitly linked with Viaticum and reconciliation,xiii but also in restricting the sacrament to the priests, who are to use oil blessed by the bishop.xiv Interestingly, a distinction seems to be made between chrism and “oil for the anointing of catechumens and the sick” in the Capitulary concerning Presbyters (dated to 810-813).xv This can also be seen when St Boniface (via a later Bavarian council) enjoins priests not to “set out anywhere without sacred chrism and blessed oil and the salutary Eucharist. But wherever, perchance, a request is made of them, let them be prepared to perform their duty at once.”xvi The Council of Pavia in 850 also reiterated that those in public penance should not receive this sacrament. It is during this same period that St Theodore lists “Holy Oil” as one of six sacraments in the Church.

In the politically and socially tumultuous twelfth century, the rite changed in both Byzantium and in the West. In the East, the medical guilds were given exclusive control of the hospitals by the emperors, and the church’s direct role in financing and supervising the hospitals came to an end. Left out of the institutional process of healing, the Church responded by enhancing “the liturgical form of the sacrament of healing [which] led to its separation from the context of the Divine Liturgy and to the formation of a service complete in itself.”xvii Patriarch Arsenios Autoreianos (1255-60) seems to have been the main revisionist in this regard, increasing the number of scriptural readings to seven (from an original two), and appointing seven prayers to be said; he is also credited composing several hymns specifically for the service of Holy Oil. In addition, he ordered that the sacrament be conducted by seven priests.

In the West, the scholastic doctors began to slowly restrict the administration of the sacrament to the dying, even inverting the order of administering the three last sacraments “so that unction received the climactic position in the administration of the last rites.”xviii Initially, of course, two positions – that the sacrament was chiefly for the sick, or that the sacrament was chiefly to prepare the person for the beatific vision – could be found side by side. The latter position was explicitly expressed by Master Simon in his De Septem Sacramentis. A twelfth century writer stated that “Every Christian is anointed three times: first, for his inception, namely in baptism; secondly, in confirmation, where the gifts of grace are conferred; thirdly, on departing (in exitu) where, if sins are present, they are remitted in whole or in major part.”xix William of Auvergne (d. 1248) compared the extreme unction to the preparations a bride makes before meeting the bridegroom in the bridal chamber.xx So we are witnessing a shift in the mystagogical aspects of the sacrament in an attempt to bring them into line with the other incipiently defined sacraments.

This image of preparing for the heavenly bridegroom was fully accepted by the later scholastic doctors such as Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus; their debates chiefly revolved around whether the remission of sins was the reality or the effect of the sacrament. Scotus, however, explicitly restricts the sacrament “to be given only to such a sick person who is no longer capable of sinning and who is in danger of death; nor is it to be given to anyone else, even though death is imminent for reasons other than sickness, as one undertaking a voyage or entering battle, because in such cases, no matter how imminent the danger of death, a man always has the use of his free will, and can sin afterwards, and to such as can still sin, it is not given.”xxi

In the fifteenth century, on the eve of the Turkish capture of Venetian held Salonica, Symeon of Thessaloniki added prayers for forgiveness to the Byzantine service of Holy Oil, to be said before the actual act of anointing. The number of scriptural readings also seems to have increased during this period, for a total of fourteen (seven Gospel readings and seven epistle readings), which is preserved today. (These additions were presumably not received by the Slavs until the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century.) In the fifteenth century West, the Council of Constance again affirmed the sacramentality of unction; but the Reformers of the following century reopened debate on the question. It should therefore not be surprising that the Council of Trent spoke very highly of this sacrament, calling it “the culmination not only of penance, but of the whole Christian life, which ought to be a continual penance.” The council refers its institution back to both Mark’s Gospel and James’ letter. It further teaches that “the matter is oil blessed by the bishop; for the anointing fittingly signifies the grace of the Holy Spirit, by which the soul of the sick person is anointed invisibly,” and “whose anointing wipes away sins, provided there are still some to be expiated, as well as the remnants of sin, and comforts and strengthens the soul of the sick person, by arousing in him great confidence in the divine mercy…”xxii The Council also emphases that duly ordained priests are the proper ministers of the sacrament, and that in the case of recovery, an anointed person may receive the sacrament again if he or she should fall gravely ill. The sacrament, however, should not be postponed until the point of death. Such was the position in the West until Vatican II, which returned to the early use of the sacrament as one befitting not simply those in their last illness, but any sick person. In 1972 Pope Paul VI instituted several changes to the rite, including permitting plant based oils other than olive oil to be used, reducing the anointing to the forehand and hands only (previously all five organs of sense were anointed), and directing that the prayer of anointing be said only once.xxiii

i Ep II, 165; PG 99:1524b.

ii Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. (1979).

iii Poschmann, Bernhard. Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. Herder and Herder, 1964.

iv Mark 6.13: “They [the Twelve] drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

v James 5.14-17: “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he as committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

vi Origen, On Leviticus, Homily 2.

vii This can be seen in one of Cyprian’s letters, though I cannot relocate the exact source. It would most likely be in his letter(s) to Pope Stephen. References to this use of the rite may also possibly be found in either Optatus or Augustine in their writings against the Donatists. I would further note that the use of the sacrament of anointing is one of three ways Roman Catholics are admitted into the Orthodox Church in the case of conversion. (Orthodox monks tend to oppose this method, however.)

viii Sacraments and Forgiveness, p289.

ix Innocent I, Epist 25, 8, To Decentius. PL 20, 559f. It should be noted, however, that it is in the context of an anointing by a bishop that Innocent calls the ritual a sacrament.

x Sermon 279, 5; PL 39, 2273 (ascribed to Augustine in PL).

xi On Correctness of Catholic Conduct, 5. (PL 40, 1172f; also in Agustine’s opus).

xii On the Epistle of James, 5. (PL 93, 39f)

xiii In the General Capitulary, the Capitulary of Aachen, and the Council of Mainz I in 847.

xiv Council of Chalon II in 813

xv Sacraments and Forgiveness, p290: “that on the day of the Lord’s Supper the presbyter should take with him two vessels, one for chrism, the other for oil for the anointing of catechumens and the sick, in accordance with the statement of the Apostle…”

xvi PL 89, 821 and 823.

xvii Health and Medicine in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p102.

xviii Sacraments and Forgiveness, p296.

xix PL 178, 1744.

xx Opera Omnia, 1, 2, 3. “for a bride never approaches the bridegroom without some preparatory ablutions and fitting attire… and since those who are about to die are like the bride who is about to enter the chamber of the bridegroom… it is clear to men of understanding how necessary and fitting is the sacrament fo the last hallowing.”

xxi On the Sentences, 4, dist 23, q.I.

xxii Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacrament of Extreme Unciton, 1551, Ch1 and Ch2, As quoted in Sacraments and Forgiveness, pp310-311.

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