When oils come in threes

Easter brings us a new set of holy oils for light, healing, strength

Easter is a time of new things: new clothes, new flowers, a new paschal candle in church, new members of the church who are baptized and/or confirmed at the Easter Vigil.

There are also new oils.

At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, these new oils were brought into church in special vessels. For the rest of the year, you will see them in the ambry — a small case, usually with a glass door, that holds three vessels of oil.

An ambry (or aumbry) comes from a Latin word that also gives us the word “armoire.” People used to keep special heirlooms in an armoire — and it is much the same with our sacred oils.

The new oils — there are three types — were blessed on Tuesday of Holy Week by Bishop David Ricken at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. The blessing of oils is an ancient rite in the church and is one of the ways that each parish in the diocese keeps spiritual ties with their chief shepherd.

The three oils are collectively call olea sacra (sacred oils) and each oil vessel is identified by initials referring to the type of oil inside: S.C.; O.I. and O.C.

S.C. is for sanctum chrisma (holy chrism);
O.C. is oleum catechumenorum (the oil of the catechumens);
O.I. is for oleum infirmorum (the oil of the sick).

Each oil plays a special role in the sacramental life of the church. At the Easter Vigil, you may see two of these oils used. If there is a baptism, the oil of the catechumens is used, followed by anointing with sacred chrism. If there is a confirmation, chrism is used to anoint the person newly confirmed in our faith. The oil of chrism is necessary for the sacrament of confirmation and signifies the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit who comes upon the person at the laying on of hands.

The oil of the sick is used for the sacrament of anointing and is most often applied to the head and hands of the person needing the prayers of the church for healing. This is an ancient act in the church; the Letter of James (5:14-16) speaks of church elders anointing the sick with oil and praying over them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of the purposes of anointing with the sacred oils: “the pre-baptismal anointing with the oil of catechumens signifies cleansing and strengthening; the anointing of the sick expresses healing and comfort. The post- baptismal anointing with sacred chrism in confirmation and ordination is the sign of consecration” (n. 1294).

All three oils are made of olive oil. Chrism has balsam added to make it especially fragrant. In churches of the Eastern rites, chrism (called myron) also contains spices along with the balsam. The addition of balsam to chrism dates to at least the sixth century, but is now a necessary element for the making of this particular sacred oil.

Chrism serves to remind us of the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, and signifies being set aside for holy service. This is why it is used not only for anointing of people — chrism is also used in ordination — but also to consecrate altars, the walls of a church at its dedication, sacred vessels like chalices and even church bells. Only the bishop can bless chrism.

About a century ago, Msgr. John F. Sullivan, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., wrote about the use of oil in the church and tied that use to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean history where olive oil was a necessity of life: for food preparation, for medicine, for athletes in training, to burn for light. Msgr. Sullivan added that the church was aware of these uses and, in turn, used oil to “give us spiritual nourishment, to cure our spiritual ailments, to diffuse the light of grace in our souls and to render us strong and active in the never-ending conflict with the Spirit of evil.”

As we enter the Easter season and celebrate the new life won for us by Christ, we should remember that “Christ” means “anointed.” We have all been baptized and confirmed in the same Spirit that anointed Jesus at his baptism.

The sacred oils have strengthened us to do as Christ, the anointed one, did — at all times but in a special way during this Year of Mercy. Our anointings have given us a share in the power of Christ to bring God’s mercy to a world that needs light, healing and strength.

Those three new vessels of oil — placed in a special case that often is near the baptismal font or by the altar — serve to remind us of that: God’s light, healing and strength.

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Externals of the Catholic Church”; Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph; “The Rites of the Catholic Church”; ewtn.com; Catholic News Service; and vatican.va.