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 well.vi 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.

IV.

Eucharistic Vigil of St Charalambos, Karakallou Monastery, Athos, Greece. Spring 2001. (www.macedonian-heritage.gr/Athos/Monastery/karakallou.html 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.

Advertisements

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.

The Mystery of Holy Oil

This post was originally a paper I turned in for a class in Sacramentology in 2006.  Please do not use it without citation.

I.  Experience

During my junior year of college, I would attend the Divine Liturgy at St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church, and daily mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Albany, NY. One day that autumn, it was announced that on an upcoming Sunday afternoon the bishop of Albany would be holding a special anointing and prayer service for those whose lives were affected by AIDS and HIV. Being a young queer man, whose life had been impacted by AIDS (and other recent events), i felt attendance would be spiritually beneficial to me. i arranged to attend with a devout Catholic dorm-mate of mine, and on the appointed Sunday afternoon she and i drove through the bright autumn sunshine to the Cathedral.

It was the first time my dorm-mate had been inside the cathedral at all, although she had seen the outside of the nineteenth century neo-gothic structure every time she drove down Madison Ave on the way to Troy.  i had never been in the cathedral during the midafternoon, hours after daily mass finished.  We were both astounded when we walked through the cathedral’s north door.

Rays of liquid sunshine poured into the vast space, bathing everyone in a palpable white light.  the immense space form the dappled floor to the arched ceiling soaring above us was suffused with the soft glow of autumnal light.  The cool interior of the cathedral seemed immersed in the calm and accepting presence of the God.  The sun shining from the rows of south windows illumined the glass bowls in which the oil rested, so that light seemed to shine out from deep within the oil itself, as if the holy Spirit dwelt in the oil and patiently awaited our approach.  The oil cast golden shadows on the ground and later, when we went up to receive the anointing, we saw the yellow light reflect back upon the faces of the ministers and recipients of the sacrament from the surface of the oil, which the ministers held in glass containers at heart level.

Not many people were present, though I would not say we were few in number.  Some people were clustered together in small groups of two or three, a few were alone.  Yet I would not have called the space created by the unfilled pews empty.  it seemed somehow, just right, as if we each were being given the space to grieve, if we needed to grieve, or to open out to others if we sought such an opening outwards.  We were all united by a deep sense of sympathy, of sharing in an experience that went beyond the sense of sharing one gets from attendance at Sunday services, and even beyond the sense of community at the Service of Holy Oil on Wednesday of Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition in the United States.  It was a sharing which the space between us did not diminish, but rather accentuated.

Although the cathedral’s gothic architecture could seem ornate from one perspective, the interior was spare, composed of well-cut and smoothed paving stones, the altar with only a simple white cloth, the bishop’s chair.  It was a simplicity mirrored by both the service itself and the vestments which the bishop and the priests wore.  all the ornament of the cathedral was left along its sides, pressed against the walls, embedded in the windows.  At its heart was an utter openness, a space in which to open oneself in silence and communion, to receive the mercy which the Holy Spirit pours out to us in the sacrament of anointing.

The combined effect of soft light, cool air, and what for me is a comforting musty smell, reminding me of childhood churches, was especially suitable to the comforting, healing aspect of the service, as was the fact that those who had gathered had come at a time outside our ordinary Sunday or liturgical routines.  The people who were present cared to be present.  We cared for reasons which touched on very physical and emotional aspects of our being, if the physical and emotional can be so sharply differentiated, and not for solely “spiritual” reasons — recognising, perhaps, that the spiritual also flows out of and is shaped by embodied experience.  We also gathered in a community which is typified by its solitary and deeply personal responses to death and dying.  The space allowed for our gathering together, and the space allowed between us within that space, also contributed to a concrete expression of healing.  The simplicity and openness of the cathedral reflected the forgiving aspect of the sacrament.  it was a physical openness, like the arms of the father who welcomed the return of the prodigal son, a son who returned at his own time, when he could trust himself to trust his father.  the time of day chosen also had its role to play, demonstrating in a very tangible manner that God pours the divine light upon all who come to receive it.