Three holy oils are used in the Church's worship today: chrism, a blessed mixture of olive oil and balm; oil of catechumens, blessed olive oil; and oil of the sick, also blessed olive oil. This article treats the following subjects: use of oil in the Bible, use of oil in the rites of Baptism and Confirmation, use of oil of the sick, and other uses of holy oils.
Use of Oil in the Bible. In biblical times, oil was a condiment (Nm 11.8), a fuel for lamps (Mt 25.1–9), and a healing agent for wounds (Lk 10.34; cf. also Is 1.6). Perhaps the most frequently mentioned use of oil in the Bible is that of anointing. Kings (e.g., 1 Sm 10.1; 16.1,13), priests (e.g., Ex 29.7), and prophets (e.g., 1 Kgs 19.16) were anointed. According to the Council of Trent, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick that was promulgated by the Apostle James (Jas 5.14; cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 1716). It was a mark of honor to anoint the head of a guest with oil (e.g., Lk 7.46). Anointing was a preparation for burial (Mk 16.1; Lk 23.56). Anointing with oil served also as a cosmetic to beautify and to prevent dessication of the skin (e.g., Ru 3.3; Jdt 10.3). Not only people were anointed; objects were as well. Jacob poured oil over the stone at Bethel as a kind of consecration (Gn 28.18); the tabernacle and its furniture were consecrated by anointing with oil (Ex 30.26–28); the shield of a warrior might be anointed (Is 21.5). Oil was also used in sacrifice (e.g., Ex 29.40; Nm 28.5). Finally, oil is used in certain figurative expressions to signify such things as abundance (Jl 2.24), soft words (e.g., Prv 5.3), joy (e.g., Is 61.3), brotherly unity (Ps 132.1–2), and the influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 2.20,27). Subsequently, the biblical use of oil influenced to a greater or lesser degree the Christian use of it. (see anointing.)
Use of Oil in Baptism and Confirmation. The Apostolic Tradition (c. third century) speaks of an "oil of exorcism," with which the candidate was anointed before Baptism, and of an "oil of thanksgiving," with which he was anointed afterward (B. Botte, ed., La tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte: Essai de reconstitution [Liturgiegeschichtliche Quellen und Forschunger,1963] 21–22). Similarly, Tertullian (d. 230; De Bapt. 7), Cyprian (d. 258; Epist. 70.2), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386; Catech. 21.3), and Basil (d. 379; On the Spirit 27.66), among others, speak of anointing after Baptism. In the fourth-century Euchologion of Serapion (15–16) there are formulas for blessing the oils used in connection with Baptism; and there is a parallel passage in the Apostolic Constitutions (fourth century 7.42). In some cases, these anointings covered the whole body (cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, De eccl. hier. 2.3). Frequently the anointings conferred immediately after Baptism in the ancient Church were the Sacrament of Confirmation, which is the complement of Baptism. The oil employed in these early anointings was olive oil, the oil in common use. Possibly it was mixed with balm in some cases. Balm seems to have been used everywhere for chrism at least from the sixth century.
Oil of the Sick. There are few, if any, references to oil destined for the sick in the first two centuries of the Christian era. The reason is uncertain. The Apostolic Tradition contains a formula for blessing oil destined for the sick, but the document implies that the oil will be either tasted or applied to the body (5; Botte, 18). There are similar passages in the Apostolic Constitutions (8.29) and in the Euchologion of Serapion (5, 17). The Persian Aphraates (fourth century) speaks of an anointing of the sick with olive oil (Demonstrationes 23.3). However it is not always clear from these and other early testimonies whether such anointings of the sick are the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick or only sacramentals [see anointing of the sick, i (theology of)]. An early reference (416) to the Anointing of the Sick is unquestionably the letter of Innocent I (401–417) to Decentius (Denzinger:216).
Other Uses of Holy Oils. From the sixth century on, anointing gradually became an integral part of the coronation ceremony of Christian kings. It probably was suggested by the ancient Hebrew practice. In the Roman rite, a newly consecrated bishop was anointed upon the head with chrism. Amalarius of Metz (770?–850?) mentions an episcopal anointing in his Liber officialis (ed. J. Hanssens, 234). Historically, the hands of a newly ordained priest were anointed with the oil of catechumens. An early reference to this rite is found in the eighth-century Missale Francorum (ed. Mohlberg, 33). It seems that the anointing of bishop and priest was inspired by the kingly anointing. In the Eastern Churches, episcopal and sacerdotal anointings are almost unknown.
Bibliography: l. l. mitchell, Baptismal anointing (London 1966). g. austin, Anointing with the Spirit: The Rite of Confirmation: The Use of Oil and Chrism (New York 1985). g. austin, "Anointing with the Oil of Catechumens," in Commentaries on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (Chicago 1988) 15–24. d. borobio, "An Enquiry into Healing Anointing in the Early Church," in Concilium (1991/2) 37–49. m. dudley, g. rowell, eds. The Oil of Gladness: Anointing in the Christian Tradition (Collegeville, Minn. 1993).
[e. j. gratsch/eds.]