The Mystery of Holy Oil III

III.  Liturgical Context

With this historical framework in mind, we can now turn to an examination of some liturgical prayers contained in the tradition of the church from its earliest times. Before we do that, however, it might be useful to mention the symbolic importance of oil. Aphraates the Persian, around 350 CE, informs us that, “In the olive there is the sign of the sacrament of life, in which Christians are perfected as priests and kings and prophets; oil illumines the darkness, anoints the sick, and by its hidden sacrament leads back the penitent.”i These themes will be repeated in nearly all the subsequent prayers of this rite. A century later (around the year 450), Victor of Antioch writes, “Now oil is both a remedy against fatigue and a source of light and gladness. And so the anointing with oil signifies the mercy of God, a remedy for sickness and enlightenment of the heart. For it is clear to all that the prayer effects all this, but, in my opinion, the oil is a symbol of these things.”ii The oil of gladness is one of the first referents to be taken up in the Byzantine Canon of the rite, and can have a startling, and uplifting effect when this symbolism is mentioned to a person who might be anything but glad in the midst of his or her suffering. Also, in Greek, the word for mercy (eleon) and oil (elaion) are homonyms, and this is played on in the hymns of that rite.

Liturgical prayers exist from the time of the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, which contains these instructions:

If anyone offers oil, he [the bishop] shall make eucharist [or render thanks] as at the oblation of the bread and wine. But he shall not say word for word [the same prayer] but with similar effect, saying: O God who sanctifiest this oil, as Thou dost grant unto all who are anointed and receive of it the hallowing wherewith Thou didst anoint kings, priests, and prophets, so may it give strength to all that taste of it and health to all that use it.

Several deductions can be made from this passage. First is the possibility that the oil was consecrated during a Eucharistic liturgy, which would be in keeping with a Coptic fragment from the Didache, which places the blessing of the oil after “thanksgiving has been made for the cup and the broken bread.”iii The oil is also offered by one of the faithful, though whether this is specifically for use in the anointing of one sick at that time is not specified (oil, after all, has a fairly lengthy shelf-life). Second, the oil is specifically described as that which anoints priests, prophets and kings, all persons of great spiritual import in the Scriptures. Its use here can reflect either a concept of the priesthood of all the faithful; a recognition of the valiant struggles faced by Christians in their lives (and illnesses), even extending to the realm of the demonic (as other prayers bring out more clearly); or some combination of the two. Third, the prayer mentions tasting the oil. Is it possible that, as some Greeks still do today, the oil was brought home and used in cooking, or for dipping bread into? Oil was seen as fortifying the sick when consumed; did this extend also to liturgical oil? If so, would it give another layer of meaning to the psalms which say, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”? Finally, the phrase “and all who use it” may also the first indication that the oil could be used by those who were not presbyters – perhaps even by those preparing soup for the ill person!

From the fourth century Prayer book of Serapion we have the following blessing of oil:

Oh Lord, in Your mercies and compassion, heal the brokenness of our souls and bodies; do you, the same Master, sanctify this oil, that it may be effectual for those who shall be anointed with it, for healing, and for relief from every passion, every defilement of the flesh and of the spirit, and of every evil; and that through it may be glorified Your most holy name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.iv

This particular prayer is notable for its concern for both soul and body. The mention of “passions” may carry monastic overtones, or may have the basic etymological meaning of “suffering;” I have not consulted the original text. In any event, it seems to be linked by context to the spiritual struggles faced by the Christian in his or her striving after apatheia. Finally, only anointing (not tasting) is mentioned. Athanasios, contemporary with this prayer, mentions the laying on of hands for the anointing of the sick, so it is safe to assume the two occurred during the ritual.

A prayer which more fully relates the themes we’ve been exploring can be found in the eighth century Gelasian Sacramentary:v

Send down from heaven, we beseech you, Lord, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, upon the richness of this oil, which You have deigned to bring forth from the green tree for refreshment of mind and body. And may Your blessing be to all who anoint, taste, and touch a protection for body, soul and spirit, for dispelling all sufferings, all sickness, all illness of mind and body. With this oil You anointed priests, kings, and prophets and martyrs: Your perfect chrism, blessed by You, O Lord, and remaining within our inner organs, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through whom all these good gifts, O Lord, You ever create [sanctify, endow with life, bless and bestow on us. Through Him and with Him and in Him, to You, God, the Father Almighty in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is all honour and glory.]

Tasting the oil is again mentioned, made even more prominent by the reference to remaining within our inner organs, although this of course can refer to God’s indwelling as Still, it makes an interesting contemplation to relate the ingestion of holy oil with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Gregorian Sacramentary omits the tasting portion of the line. New in this prayer is the mention of martyrs among the priests, prophets, and kings, perhaps reflecting even more a movement towards an awareness of the oil as strengthening Christians for a time of trial.  This idea is reflected in various hagiographical accounts of martyrs who compared themselves to gladiators, who are stripped and anointed with oil before a fight [See Brock and Harvey.  Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. University of California Press, 1998].

The Byzantine Rite as we have it from the fifteenth centruy is rather elaborate, and not exactly suitable for use in a hospital setting, in keeping with its historical development.vii After the introductory prayers common to all offices, the rite opens with the following hymn:

O Master, You always gladden the souls and bodies of mortals, with the oil of loving kindness, and You also safeguard your faithful by oil.  Show compassionalso to those who now draw near to You through the Oil.  (Lord Jesus, have mercy on your servants.)  The whole earth is full of Your mercy, O Master.  Therefore, we in faith do implore you, that You bestow upon us, who today shall be anoointed mystically by Your Divine and precious Oil, Your mercy, which surpasses undertstanding.

The Greek text clearly plays on the homonymity of eleon (mercy) and elaion (oil).  The oil is mentioned as a source and symbol of joy, and the typological hymns which follow reference the olive branch brought to noah by the dove (God reaches out to humanity in forgiveness), and the enlightening power of (oil) lamps (recalling also baptism/ christmation, in which the newly baptised is called the “newly enlightened [name of person]”).  Jesus’ incarnation is compared to the oil:  O Saviour, who like the incorruptible Chrism (myron), ou emptied Yourself in Grace to purify the world, show mercy on the bodily wounds of those, who with faith, are now about to be anointed. The oil is compared to a seal against demons in later hymns, and refence to its use in the anointing of kings and preists is also made.  Several more hymns continue in this vein, followed by the litany in which we pray “That this oil will be blessed by the descent, power, and operation of the Holy Spirit.” The priest then says a silent prayer, almost exactly replicating that found in the Prayerbook of Serpaion.  This is followed by hymns asking for the intercession of specific saints:  Nicholas of Myra (because of the play ont he word for chrism, myron); Demetrios (because his body gushes forth myron, which is collected and distributed to the faithful for healing purposes); Panteleimon, Cosmas and Damian (all three are “holy unmercenary doctors”), and the Virgin Theotokos.

Scripture readings and prayers after each set of two readings follow these introductory hymns:  James 5.10-16, Luke 10.25-37 (Good Samaritan); Romans 15.1-7 (Bear with one another), Luke 19.1-10 (Zacchaeus); 1 Cor 12.27-31, 13.1-8 (Love), Mt 10.1, 5-8 (Sending of disciples to heal); 2 Cor 6.16-18, 7.1 (Body as Temple), Mt 8.14-23 (Peter’s in-law); 2 Cor 1.8-11 (God raises dead), Mt 25.1-13 (Wise and Foolish Virgins); Gal 5.22 – 6.3 (Spirit’s fruit), Mt 15.21-28 (Phoenician woman); 1 Th 5.14-23 (Comfort the faint), Mt 9.9-13 (Jesus’ ministry not to the well, but the sick).

Finally comes the Prayer of Anointing, the Anointing itself, and the final hymn, which is sung while the faithful receive the sacrament.  The anointing is given on the forehead, chin, cheeks, and both sides of the hands, while the priest says, “O Holy Father, Physician of our souls and bodies, have mercy, forgive and save Your servant N.” A Q-tip is typically used to administer the oil today (the rubrics specify a “wand tipped with cotton,”) and the faithful are invited to take home some oil for personal use.  (Some people even use this oil in soup for the sick.)

The contemporary services of the Rite of Anointing for the Latin rite can take several forms, three of which are given in The Rites (volume One).  These variations encompass the administration of the sacrament in the context of a Eucharistic liturgy, and two outside the context of the mass (one as a full service perhaps held in a church building, the other for use int he hospital). viii In the context of the mass, the anointing ceremony falls after the homily and before the Eucarist, and is otherwise very similar to the rite outside mass, except that the scriptural readings can be from the readings of that Sunday.  The sick are brought to the altar before the blessing of the oil (if the oil was not blessed beforehand), at which time the ministers lay their hands over the sick and pray, recalling Jesus’ own manner of healing from Luke 4.40 [“At sunset, all who had pepole sick with various diseases brought them to Him.  He laid his hands on each of them and cured them.”].  Then the oil is blessed and the sick are anointed with the sign of the cross ont he forehead, while the prieest says:  “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”  The palms of the sick person are then anointed with the words, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”  The Eucharisitc gifts are then brought to the altar, and mass continues as usual.

In the hospital, the rite begins with the sprinkling of holy water and an appropriate antiphon (reflecting Ps 23, 64, or a NT text on our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection).  Readings may be taken from appropriate scriptural sources; Mt 11.25-30, Mk 2.1-12, and Lk 7.18b-23 are recommended in the Rites.  After a litany of intercession, hands are laid onthe sick person, the oil is prayed over or blessed, and the sick one is anointed.  the Lord’s Prayer follws, with communion if this is being given.  A final blessing conclues the rite.

The prayer over the oil is the following:  God of all consolation, you chose and sent Your Son to heal the world.  Graciously listen to our prayer of faith:  send the power of your Holy spirit, the consoler, into this precius oil, this soothing ointment, this rich gift, this fruit of the earth.  Bless this oil + and sanctify it for our use.  make this oil a remedy for all who are anoited with it; heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit, and deliver them from every affliction.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever, Amen.

This prayer explicitly addresses the Triune God in each hypostasis’ role as care-giver.  The prayer mentions the Holy Spirit in [Her] role as Consoler.  the Father is invoked in a simlliar fashion, by reminding Him of the healing vocation of Jesus to humanity, and the prayer petitions specifically that the Holy Spirit be sent into the oil.  The effect of receiving the oil into which the presence of God has been specifically requested is tantamount to being physically enveloped in god’s presence, and would undoubtedly make a strong and (hopefully) comforting impression on the recipeient.  In a like manner, the words used during the actual anointing are very non-judgmental (sick persons sometimes feel guilt over their illness) and entirely compassionate.  For those approaching death knowingly, the final phrase (“May the Lord raise you up”) also has eschatological overtones, and can reinforce a person’s faith in the Resurreciton of the dead.


Eucharistic Vigil of St Charalambos, Karakallou Monastery, Athos, Greece. Spring 2001. ( has images of Karakallou, albeit without photos of the interior of the church.)

I entered the dark church nestled in the centre of the monastery’s walls, leaving the cool night behind me. A warm glow spread from the few oil lamps burning in front of various icons, their light glinting off the gold frames. Beeswax candles burned in brass candlesticks, the metal gleaming faintly in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I could see the black-robed monks standing at their places around the walls of the church. Peering out from above them were the frescoed icons of various saints, seeming to emerge from lapis backgrounds which receded into the shadows beyond the lamplight. The small space kept the incense from diffusing too quickly, and it mingled with the warm scent of beeswax. The chants of the monks reverberated throughout the church and within my body. In the centre of the space a small table containing the saint’s relics and reliquary was placed. We were a series of Chinese boxes, one inside the other: Athos surrounded by the world, Karakallou by Athos, the Katholikon (main church) by the walls of the monastery, the relics by the monks and pilgrims of that monastery. The small church with its relics and community of monks was a microcosm of the whole Church, and that entire Church was present with us.

Space at this vigil was not simply physical; it moved imperceptibly into time, collapsing the distance between the martyr’s death at the hands of Roman authorities, the lives of countless medieval monks who prayed in this monastery (despite the vicissitudes of the actual building), those of us gathered at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the saint’s glorification in the eternal Day amid God’s uncreated light. The icons in the walls reminded us that we were in the antechamber of heaven, though we could perceive that light only dimly in the darkened chamber, as if looking into a polished metal mirror. The relics in the centre of the Church brought to our awareness that here were the physical remains of one who had become a “god on earth” by the action of the Holy Spirit, and attested to both his physical and spiritual presence with us. Although it did not happen in this instance, it is not uncommon for the relics of the saint whose life and apotheosis are being commemorated to begin to exude myron, the scented oil-like substance characteristic of relics.  This myron is collected with wool or cotton and distributed to the faithful for their healing and consolation, a concrete expression and manifestation of that grace by which the body of Christ is united with the individual body of the faithful disciple. We, who were also seeking to follow that path of grace, were all oriented towards the grace-filled remains and towards the life-bestowing gifts of the altar through which the saint recieved his own healing and glorification, and in which we were united with him.  The healing and comforting nature of the sacrament of anointing, whether with oil pressed from the olive or with the exudate of a saint’s relics, has been recognized since the beginning.  It is a true gift of a compassionate and loving God to the Church, through which we are reminded that even as we face our own illnesses and even death, we are not alone.  The Church is present with her prayers and rites in the person of the priest (empowered by the bishop or abbot/ hegoumen) and the community, and in the simple everyday “homey” material of oil, in which the god who has always been with us is revealed in warm and enveloping embrace. As we began the Eucharist, all of us together, on earth and in heaven, celebrated the transcendence of time and space, Christ’s victory over death by his death and resurrection .

Appendix: Carolingian rite from ninth century and the Gregorian Sacramentary:ix

1. Sprinkling of sick person and house with salted water, together with antiphons and prayers.

2. Prayer which references James (in full) and Antiphon (“The Lord has said to his disciples: in my name cast out devils; and lay your hands on the sick, and they will be well”), Psalm 49 (Vulgate?), repeat Antiphon, prayer (“We pray our Lord Jesus Christ, and in all supplication we ask that he deign through His holy angel to visit, gladden and comfort this His servant”), Antiphon II (“Come, O Lord, to the assistance of this sick person, and heal him with spiritual medicine, that, restored to former health, he may return thanks to Thee in soundness of health”), Psalm 119, Antiphon II, Psalm 37, Gloria, Antiphon II.

3. Anointing on neck and throat, between shoulders and on breast; further, the place of most pain. Prayer: “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that the unclean spirit may not remain hidden in you, nor in your members, nor in your organs, nor in any joint of your members; rather, through the working of this mystery, may there dwell in you the power of Christ, all-high, and of the Holy Spirit. And through this ointment of consecrated oil and our prayer, cured and warmed by the Holy Spirit may you merit to receive your former and even better health. Through [your glory, who live and reign and are blessed forever and ever].” Followed by two prayers.

4. Communion. “And let them do the same for seven days, if there be need, both with regard to communion as well as the other office…”

5. Additional anointing of the five senses – eyelids, inner nostrils and on the tip of the nose, outside of lips and back of hands, saying: In the name of the Father, etc.

i Demonstrations, 23.3.

ii Commentary on Mark 6:13.

iii Sacraments and Forgiveness, p277. The blessing in the Didache is: “With regard to the ointment, give thanks in the following way: ‘We give Thee thanks, Father, for the ointment which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus, Thy child: glory to Thee unto the Ages, Amen.”

iv Health and Medicine, 103, citing Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church pp340-341, with updated language.

v Sacraments and Forgiveness, p288.

vi I seem to recall a Mozarabic hymn which mentions God dwelling within our “viscera.” Cf PL 86…

vii From the Holy Week-Easter Service book of the Greek Orthodox Church.

ix Gregorian Sacramentary, PL 78, 231-236. Described in Sacraments and Forgiveness, pp 294 – 296.


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