How is oil used in worship?
The use of oil (chrism) is mentioned extensively throughout Scripture. The NRSV Exhaustive Concordance has 224 listings for oil and 170 for anointing. Priests, kings and queens were anointed with oil. Oil was offered as a sacrifice. Oil was used as an agent of healing. The references include such interesting phrases as "the oil of gladness."
Worship is more than words. It is the action of an assembly gathered together to offer prayer and thanksgiving and to receive from God the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Signs and earthly elements, such as oil, can help communicate in a powerful way the reality of our participation in God’s unending life, and our participation in the healing of the world accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
How might oil be used in worship today?
Our current worship books make provision for the use of anointing with oil as part of the baptismal rite and also as part of the Service of the Word for Healing. The baptismal rite in Evangelical Lutheran Worship specifies that oil may be used as the sign of the cross is made on the forehead of the newly baptized as the presiding minister says, "N., child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever." ELW also provides for the use of oil in conjunction with the laying on of hands and prayer for healing as urged in James 5:13-16.
The actual act of anointing can be done in several ways. Some may use a small oil stock containing a piece of cotton soaked with the oil. When using an oil stock the presiding minister dips the thumb on the cotton and then traces the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one being anointed. Another possibility is for the presiding minister to take a glass vessel (similar to a small pitcher) and pour a small amount of the oil into the palm of the hand. The minister then places the hand against the person’s forehead and spreads the chrism across the forehead, and even down the person’s cheeks, while reciting the words relating to the sealing with the Holy Spirit. When the words having to do with being marked with the cross of Christ are said, the presiding minister then traces a cross on the person’s forehead with the thumb. Yet another possibility is to pour the oil from a glass vessel over the head of the person and spread it with the hand and conclude by making the sign of the cross. This was the method likely used in the early church. Of course, pastoral sensitivity will help determine how the anointing is done. These uses of oil lift up the biblical images of anointing with the Spirit, union with Christ, and healing.
Simple olive oil, often mixed with a hint perfume, traditionally balsam, is used. This adds the gentle scent of spices in the air. This use of oil adds several dimensions of sensory involvement in the liturgy.
Appropriate containers for holding the oil are available from most church supply stores so congregations can receive and carry home the oil to be used throughout the coming year.
Although there is no rite provided by the ELCA, in some synods it is becoming common for the oil used in these rites to be blessed in a "Mass of Chrism" during Holy Week and presided over by a synodical bishop. At this unique liturgy, the blessing of oil is often coupled with a renewal of vows for rostered leaders. The traditional day for the Chrism Mass is Maundy Thursday (when some traditions believe the first ordinations took place). In some places (especially in geographically large synods), bishops make provision for several chrism masses throughout the synod to enable all rostered people to participate.
- Dudley, Martin, and Geoffrey Rowell, eds. The Oil of Gladness: Anointing in the Christian Tradition. London: SPCK and Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1993.
- Fink, Peter E., S.J., ed. Anointing of the Sick. Alternative Futures for Worship, vol. 7. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1987.
- Principles for Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002. This second volume of the Renewing Worship series presents the outcome of the consultative phase of Renewing Worship. During 2001, over 100 people representing the breadth of this church took part in a series of consultations that led to the formulation of these principles. Based on The Use of the Means of Grace, this volume provides foundational principles in the areas of language, music, preaching, and worship space for study and response throughout the church. The volume is available for purchase at Augsburg Fortress and for download at the Renewing Worship Web site. ISBN: 0806670037.
Stauffer, S. Anita. Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000. ISBN: 0806638966.
These Things Matter. A VHS video on Word, Baptism, and Holy Communion that supports and complements The Use of the Means of Grace. A study guide included, this is ideal for use with adult study groups. ISBN: 6000090447.
The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997. This statement was adopted for guidance and practice by the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 19, 1997. This document provides guidance on the proclamation of the Word and the Christian assembly, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and the relationship between worship and Christian mission.