An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Oil, Holy

Olive oil that has been blessed is used sacramentally in the liturgical and pastoral ministries of the church. Holy oil is usually applied by the minister of the sacrament or sacramental rite to the forehead of the one who is anointed. The minister often applies the oil with the thumb, making the sign of the cross with the oil. Historically, three types of oil have been identified for use in liturgical anointing. Chrism, a mixture of olive oil and fragrant balsam, is used for the anointing after baptism. It has been abbreviated “SC,” sanctum chrisma. Chrism may also be used at Confirmation. It has also been used to anoint newly consecrated bishops. The oil of catechumens was pure olive oil. It was used for the exorcistic anointing prior to baptism. It has also been used at the ordination of priests and the anointing of kings. It was abbreviated “OC,” oleum catechumenorum. The oil of the sick was also pure olive oil. It was used for anointing the sick. It was abbreviated “OI,” oleum infirmorum.

In the OT, oil was used for anointing kings and priests (see 1 Sm 10:1 and 16:1, 13; Ex 29:7). The use of oil in Christian baptism dates from at least the second century. The title “Christ” means the “anointed one.” Oil is used as a symbol of baptism in the NT (see Lk 4:18, Acts 4:27, 1 Jn 2:20, 27). The NT also records the practice of anointing with oil for healing (see Mk 6:13, Jas 5:14). The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c. 215) included a form for the blessing of oil for the sick. The Apostolic Tradition also noted that anointing with oil was not required for baptism if oil were unavailable. By the fourth or early fifth century, it was required that chrism be consecrated by a bishop. The 1979 BCP (p. 307) calls for chrism to be consecrated by the bishop. This may be done when the bishop is present in the parish for Confirmation (BCP, p. 419). The BOS provides a form for Consecration of Chrism apart from Baptism. This rite takes place immediately after the postcommunion prayer and before the bishop's blessing and the dismissal. In many dioceses, the consecration of chrism by the bishop may be done at a service of reaffirmation of ordination vows during Holy Week. The BCP allows oil for the anointing of the sick to be blessed by a priest or bishop (p. 455). The Prayer Book does not mention the Oil of Catechumens.

The use of oil was rejected by many churches at the time of the Reformation. The 1549 BCP included a post-baptismal anointing, but this anointing was not present in the 1552 Prayer Book. The 1549 Prayer Book allowed the use of oil if the sick person desired to be anointed. But the 1549 BCP did not provide a form for setting apart the oil for this use. This use of oil was also eliminated in the 1552 BCP. The 1928 BCP restored the practice of anointing. It provided a form for “Unction of the Sick.” The 1928 Prayer Book did not provide a form for blessing the oil, and it allowed no use of oil in addition to the anointing of the sick. The 1979 BCP includes the rite of chrismation at baptism (p. 308). The Prayer Book directs that the bishop or priest will mark the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized person, using chrism if desired (BCP, p. 308). The Prayer Book Catechism states that unction is the rite of anointing the sick with oil, or the laying on of hands, by which God's grace is given for the healing of spirit, mind, and body (BCP, p. 861). The Prayer Book service for Ministration to the Sick includes Part I, ministry of the word, Part II, laying on of hands and anointing, and Part III, Holy Communion (BCP, pp. 453-457). If the sick person is to be anointed, the priest dips a thumb in the holy oil and makes the sign of the cross on the sick person's forehead (BCP, p. 456). In cases of necessity, a deacon or lay person may perform the anointing with oil blessed by a bishop or priest. The BOS also provides a form for a Public Service of Healing. At this service the celebrant lays hands on the people, and may anoint the people with oil of the sick. Olive oil may be one of the gifts presented to the new minister at the Celebration of a New Ministry. When the oil is presented, the new minister is urged to be among the members of the congregation “as a healer and reconciler” (BCP, p. 561).

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.