The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
Have you ever had a wound that was soothed by an oil, ointment or balm? You could feel its healing properties go to work almost immediately. Historical uses of oils, ointments and balms can be found since ancient time. In today’s church, anointing with oils is part of several of the seven sacraments as both a healing and a blessing. Each church has a repository for the oils, called an ambry, that stores the blessed oils. The Roman Ritual states that the place of reservation should be in a public area for all to see and should be secure and protected with a lock. Most churches place the ambry near the baptistry.
Scriptural references abound to the use of oils, ointments and balms for wounds and bruises and the legacy of anointing with ointments or oils has a long history in the Catholic Church as a carryover from the Jewish tradition. The Old Testament reading for today cites David’s desire for Bathsheba that led to his involvement in the murder of her husband. Further on in the passage, which we don’t hear today, was his repentance for his sins, where he washed and anointed himself before entering into the house of the Lord. In today’s Gospel we also hear of a sinful woman who brought an alabaster flask of ointment and anointed Jesus’ feet, but in reality it was a balm for her healing.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark reveal Jesus’ commission to the apostles to continue the healing and anointing work he had begun. However, the first inkling of an actual anointing rite is in the letter of James, where church elders were told to pray over the sick and anoint them, later evolving into the rite we know today.
During medieval times it came to be called “extreme unction” which was used only for those in imminent danger of death and could only be conferred once in a lifetime. The reforms of Vatican II rightfully restored anointing to when someone is ill or facing major medical procedures. .
As with all sacraments, anointing is not a private rite, but a community celebration. This sacrament encompasses the church’s larger pastoral care of the sick and includes people who are dealing with substance addictions, mental disturbances or need inner spiritual healing. In other words, anointing covers all parts of the human condition and serves to restore mind, body and spirit.
Sources: The Sacristy Manual and the Encyclopedia of Catholicism.
Wettstein is a volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish, Chilton.