In the ancient Near East, olive oil was used for healing, sealing, and strengthening. Athletes in ancient Greece would use it to limber up and soothe their muscles before competing. Oil was also poured on the head of guests as a sign of hospitality. Prophets were anointed with olive oil, and they in turn anointed kings.
In the Hebrew scriptures, anointing is understood as an experience of God’s grace. The psalmists write, “You anoint me in the presence of my foes” (Ps. 23:5) and “God has anointed you with the oil of gladness” (Ps. 54:7). In the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples anoint the sick with oil while healing, and Matthew and Mark refer to a woman in Bethany who pours oil on Jesus’ head shortly before his crucifixion.
Today Roman Catholics and many other Christian churches use a mixture of olive oil and perfume (usually balsam) in the celebrations of baptism, confirmation, and holy orders. Sacred chrism (sacrum chrisma in Latin) is also used to anoint the altar and walls of a church building.
Chrism, along with the two oils used to bless catechumens and to anoint the sick, is blessed and distributed at Chrism Mass during Holy Week. The bishop breathes on the chrism, a gesture that recalls Jesus breathing on his disciples after the resurrection and sending the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).
Parishes keep the chrism (along with the other two holy oils) in a container called a chrismaria, which itself is stored in a receptacle called an ambry, usually near the baptismal font. Throughout the liturgical year, the blessed chrism is used to represent our new life in Christ and the fact that we, like the Hebrews, are set apart and marked by God.
In the baptismal rite the oil is used with the words “as Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of his Body, sharing everlasting life.” At confirmation the confirmand is signed with chrism on the forehead and hears the words “be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” The confirmand “receives the ‘mark,’ the seal of the Holy Spirit,” in order to “share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ.” And during ordination the bishop anoints the hands of new priests and the consecrating bishop anoints the head of new bishops to symbolize their service to the people of God.
Any unused chrism is to be disposed of reverently and carefully; for many parishes, this means burying or burning the oil (although many liturgical guides point out that olive oil is hard to burn and recommend soaking cotton balls in the chrism to help the process along). While there is no dictate on how to properly dispose of the chrism, many parishes either burn it in the paschal fire or, sometimes, in a separate liturgical celebration during Holy Week. The liturgy acknowledges the inward transformation by the Holy Spirit that is signified by anointing with chrism. Burning chrism returns the oil to God and celebrates the renewal of our faith and the new oils that are soon to be consecrated for the coming year.
This article also appears in the July 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 7, page 49).