Source: Olive oil and the Church   Leave a comment

The following forms a chapter in John Hurley, The Tree, the Olive, the Oil in the Old and New World (1919), available in pdf form on our site. SY

From the earliest ages to the present time the olive tree, its fruit with its uses, have been carefully considered ; now brief mention should be made of olive oil as used in ecclesiastical ceremonies, both in primitive and modern times. As is generally known, the liturgical blessing of oil is very ancient. It is met with in the fourth century in the Prayer Book of Serapion and in the Apostolic Constitution, also in a Syrais document of the fifth and sixth centuries entitled Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. The aforesaid book of Bishop Serapion (A. D. 362) contains the formula for the blessing of the oil and chrism for those who had just received baptism, which was in those days followed by confirmation in such a manner that the administration of both sacraments constituted a single ceremony. In the same book is found a separate form of blessing for the oil, of the sick, for water, and for bread. It is an invocation to Christ to give His creatures power to cure the sick, to purify the soul, to drive away impure spirits, and to wipe out sin. In the Old Testament oil was used for the consecration of priests and kings, also in all great liturgical functions, e. g. sacrifices, legal purifications, and the consecration of altars.

In the primitive church the oils to be used in the initiation of catechumens were consecrated on Holy Thursday in the Missa Chrismalis. Two different ampullae were used, one containing pure oil, the other mixed with balsam. This mixture was made by the Pope himself before the mass in the sacristy. During the mass two clerics of lesser rank stood before the altar holding the ampulla. Toward the end of the canon the faithful offered for benediction small ampullae of oil: these contained oil of the sick which the faithful were allowed to make use of themselves, but the same oil also served for extreme unction. The vessels holding it were placed on the railing surrounding the space reserved for the clergy. The deacons brought these vessels to the altar to receive the blessing of the Pope. The Pope continued the mass while the deacons returned the ampullae to the place whence they had brought them, and a certain number of bishops and priests repeated over those which had not been brought to the altar the formula pronounced by the Pope. The consecration of the large ampulla took place immediately after the communion of the Pope, before the communion of the clergy and the faithful. The deacons covered the chalice and paten while the subdeacons carried the ampullae to the archdeacon and one of his assistants. The archdeacon presented to the Pope the ampullae of perfumed oil, the Pope breathed on it three times, made the sign of the cross, and recited a prayer which bears a certain resemblance to the preface of the mass. The ampullae of pure oil was next presented to the Pope and was consecrated with less solemnity. The consecration and benediction of the Holy oil now take place on Holy Thursday at a very solemn ceremony reserved for the bishop. He blesses the oil which is to serve at the anointing of catechumens previous to baptism, next the oil with which the sick are anointed in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, finally the chrism, which is a mixture of oil and balsam, and which is used in the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The use of oil in Christian antiquity was not, as has been maintained, a medical prescription adopted by the church. In apostolic times St. James directed the priests or ancients of the community to pray for the sick man and to anoint him with oil in the name of Jesus. And shortly afterwards, probably in the second century, a gold leaf found at Beyrout in Svria, contains an exordium ‘pronounced in the dwelling of him whom I anointed.’ This is, after the text of St. James; the earliest evidence of the use of oil accompanied by formula in the administration of a sacrament. The oil of the sick might lie blessed not only by priests but also by laymen of high repute for virtue, and even by women. In the sixth century St. Monegundus on his death-bed blessed oil and salt, which were afterwards used for the sick. A similar instance is met with in the life of St. Redegund. In the West, however, the tendency was early manifested to confine the blessing of the oil of the sick to bishops only. About 730 St. Boniface ordered all priests to have recourse to the bishop. In 744 the tendency was not so pronounced in France, but the Council of Chalons, 813, imposed on priests the obligation of anointing the sick with oil blessed by the bishop. In the East the priests retained the right to consecrate the oil. The custom even became established, and has lasted to the present time, of having the oil blessed in the house of the sick person, or in the church by a priest, or, if possible, by seven priests.

During the time of the catechumenate those who were about to become Christians received one or more anointings with holy oil. The oil used on this occasion was that which had received the blessing mentioned in the Apostolic Constitution. This anointing of the catechumens is explained by the fact that they were regarded to a certain extent as being possessed by the devil until Christ should enter into them through baptism. The oil of catechumens is also used in the ordination of priests and the coronation of kings and queens.

The oil of chrism is used in the West immediately after baptism. Both in the East and West it was used very early for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The Ordo Romanus shows that in Rome on Holy Thursday the archdeacon went very early to St. John Lateran, where he mixed wax and oil in a large vase, this mixture being used to make the Agnus Dei. The same document shows that in the suburban churches wax was used while Pseudo-Alcium [pseudo Alcuin?] says that both wax and oil were used.

In the Liturgy of the Nestorians and the Syrian Jacobites, the elements present at the Eucharistic Consecration have been prepared with oil. Among the Nestorians a special rubric prescribes the use of flour, salt, olive oil and water.

From the second century the custom was established of administering baptism with water specially blessed for this purpose. Nevertheless, the sacrament was valid if ordinary water was used. We are not well informed as to the nature of the consecration of this baptismal water, but it must be said that the most ancient indications and descriptions say nothing of the use of oil in this consecration. The first witness, Pseudo-Dionysius, does not go beyond the first half of the sixth century; he tells us that the bishop pours oil on the water of the fonts in the form of a cross. There is no doubt that this rite was introduced at a comparatively late period.

The maintenance of more or less numerous lamps in the churches was a source of expense which the faithful in their generosity hastened to meet by establishing a fund to purchase oil. The Council of Braga (572) decided that a third of the offerings made to the church should be used for purchasing oil for the light. The quality of oil thus consumed was greater when a lamp burned before a famous tomb or shrine, in which case it was daily distributed to pilgrims, who venerated it as a relic.

Chrism is a mixture of olives and balsam, blessed by a bishop in a special manner, and used in the administration of certain sacraments and in the performance of certain ecclesiastical functions. That chrism may serve as valid matter for the Sacrament of Confirmation it must consist of pure oil of olives and it must be blessed by a Bishop, or at least by a priest delegated by the Holy See. These two conditions are certainly necessary for validity; moreover, it is probable that there should be an admixture of balsam and that the blessing of the chrism should be special, in the sense that it ought to be different from that which is given to the oil of the sick or the oil of catechumens. If either of the last two conditions is wanting the sacrament will be doubtfully valid. To deal with the subject in a sufficiently exhaustive manner, it will be enough to touch on (1) the origin and antiquity of chrism, (2) its constituent nature, (3) its blessing, and (4) its use and symbolic significance.

(1) In its primitive meaning the word chrism, like the Greek chriona, was used to designate any and every substance that served the purpose of smearing or anointing, such as the various kinds of oils, unguents and pigments. This was its ordinary signification in profane literature, and even in the early patristic writings. Gradually, however, in the writings of the fathers at all events, the term came to be restricted to that special kind of oil that was used in religious ceremonies and functions, especially in the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation. Thus origin refers to the visible chrism in which we have all been baptized. St. Ambrose venerates in the chrism the oil of grace which makes kings and priests; and St. Cyril of Jerusalem celebrates the praises of the mystic chrism. The early councils of the church have also references to chrism as something set apart for sacred purposes and making for the sanctification of men. Thus the Council of Constantinople held in 381 and the Council of Toledo, 398. Regarding the institution of chrism, or its introduction into the sacramental and ceremonial system of the church, some theologians, among them St. Thomas and Susrex, hold that it was instituted immediately by Christ, while others contend that it is altogether of ecclesiastical origin. Eugene IV in his famous ‘Instruction for the Armenians’ asserts that chrism is the matter of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and, indeed, this opinion is so certain that it may not be denied without incurring some note of theological censure. All that the Council of Trent has defined in this connection is that they who attribute a certain spiritual and salutary efficacy to holy chrism do not in any way derogate from the respect and reverence due to the Holy Ghost.

(2) Two elements enter into the constitution of legitimate chrism, viz., olive oil and balsam. The former is indeed the predominating, as well as the principal ingredient, but the latter must be added in greater or lesser quantity, if not for reasons of validity, at all events in obedience to a grave ecclesiastical precept. Frequent reference is made in the Old Testament to the use of oil in religious ceremonies. It was employed in the coronation of kings, in the consecration of the high priests, and in the ordination of the Levites, and, indeed, it figured very prominently in the Mosaic ordinances generally, as can he abundantly gathered from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Such being the prevailing usage of the Old Testament in adopting olive oil for religious ceremonies, it is no cause for wonder that it also came to receive under the New Dispensation a certain religious recognition and approval. The second element that enters into the constitution of genuine chrism is balsam. This is an aromatic, resinous substance that is extracted from the wood of certain trees or plants, especially those belonging to the terebinthine group or family. In the manufacture of this sweet-smelling unguent the early Greek-Christians were wont to employ as many as forty different perfumed species or essences. In the beginning of the Christian era balsam was obtained from Judea and from Arabia, but in modern times it is also produced, and in superior quality, in the West Indies. The first mention of balsam as an ingredient in the composition of chrism seems to be found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, a work belonging to the sixth century. Now, however, according to existing legislation, the additional balsam is requisite for lawful chrism, but whether it is necessary for the validity of the sacrament, assuming that chrism is the matter of confirmation, is a matter about which theologians do not agree. The modern view appears to be that it is not so required. But owing to the uncertainty mere olive oil alone would be doubtful matter and could not therefore be employed apart from very grave necessity.

(3) For proper and legitimate chrism the blessing by a bishop is necessary, and probably, too, such a blessing as is peculiar to it alone. That the bishop is the ordinary minister of this blessing is certain. So much is amply recognized in all the writings of the early centuries, by the early councils ; the Second Council of Carthage of 390, and the Third Council of Braga, 572 and by all modern theologians. But whether a priest may be the extraordinary minister of this blessing, and if so, in what circumstances – this is a question that is more or less freely discussed. It seems agreed that the Pope may delegate a priest for this purpose, but it is not so clear that bishops can bestow the same delegated authority ex jure ordinario. They exercised, it seems, this prerogative in former times in the East, but the power of delegating priests to bless chrism is now strictly reserved to the Holy See in the Western church The rites employed in consecrating the sacred chrism go to show that it is a ceremony of the highest importance. Formerly it could be blessed on any day of the year, according as necessity arose. Now, however, it must be blessed during the solemn mass on Holy Thursday. For the full solemn ceremonial the consecrating prelate should be assisted by twelve priests, seven deacons, and seven subdeacons. The oil and balsam, being prepared in the sacristy beforehand, are carried in solemn procession to the sanctuary after the communion, and placed on a table. Then the balsam, held on a silver salver, is blessed, and similarly the olive oil, which is reserved in a silver jar. After this the balsam is mixed with the oil. Then the chrism, being perfected with a final prayer, receives the homage of all the sacred ministers present, each making a triple genuflection toward it. and each time saying the words, ‘ave sanctum chrisma’. After the ceremony it is taken back to the sacristy and distributed among the priests, who take it away in silver vessels commonly called oil-stocks, that which remains being securely and reverently guarded under lock and key.

(4) Chrism is used in the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders, in the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, altars, and altar stones, and in the solemn blessing of bells and baptismal water. The head of the newly baptized is anointed with chrism, the forehead of the person confirmed, the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration, and the hands of a priest at his ordination. So are the walls of churches, which are solemnly consecrated, anointed with the same holy oil, and the parts of the sacred vessels used in the mass which come in contact with the Sacred Species, as the paten and chalice. If it be asked why chrism has been introduced into the functions of the church liturgy, a reason is found in its special fitness for this purpose by reason, of its symbolic significance. For olive oil being of its own nature rich, diffusive, and abiding, is fitted to represent the copious outpouring of sacramental grace, while balsam, which gives forth most agreeable and fragrant odors, typifies the innate sweetness of Christian virtue. Oil also gives strength and suppleness to the limbs, while balsam preserves from corruption. Thus, anointing with chrism aptly signifies that fullness of grace and spiritual strength by which we are enabled to resist the contagion of sin and produce the sweet flowers of virtue. ‘For we are the good odor of Christ unto God’.

In conclusion it readily can be seen that the olive tree and its fruit have played a wonderful and conspicuous part in the history of the human race. From the ancient crowning of rulers and athletes with garlands made from its leaves, the placing of the boughs about the beloved dead, the race of primitive man that by its nourishing fruit and oil was kept from starvation and death, to the opening up of avenues of trade where otherwise there would have been no commerce, until the present days, the olive is famous and always will continue to be. Few substances have had the same fame, the same varied history, the same uplifting value that olive oil has had. It contributes not only to the nourishment of health, but also to the suppleness and beauty of the body; it has served as an anointing oil with which priests were elevated to the privilege of performing the sacred rights of the temple, using at their discretion both then and now the blessed oil in the solemn rites of the church. Kings and rulers were anointed with it, that the blessing of God might rest upon them, giving them grace to rule wisely the people under them. Great indeed would be the calamity to us, these people of modern times, if the olive orchards should become barren, the trees cease to yield their fruit, and the cruse of oil become empty

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