You walk into a quiet, peaceful room. A friend is lying in bed, propped up on pillows, comfortable under a colorful hand-made quilt. “He’s going to need surgery for that leg,” says his daughter, rising from the rocking chair next to the bed. “Our parish priest will be coming to anoint him and offer prayers for healing before we go to the hospital.” The priest enters, and you all gather round, to hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer together. Then, she pulls out a small silver vial, dips her thumb into it and makes the sign of the cross on your friend’s forehead with Oil of the Sick. Leaning over she places her hands gently on top of his head, praying that he will have strength and courage during the surgery and recovery; for wisdom and skill for the medical staff; and that the Great Physician will attend him and provide healing.
You notice in the bulletin an unfamiliar part of the liturgy: Admission of Catechumens. The sermon is over, but before he leaves the pulpit, your priest says, “We have the amazing privilege today of admitting an adult to the catechumenate. Joelle Smith is preparing for her baptism, and for the next few months, she will be among us as a catechumen. She will now enter officially into this state.” Joelle and her sponsor, John, stand before the priest in front of the altar. The priest asks, “What do you seek?” To which Joelle answers, “Life in Christ.” After a few more questions, answers and prayers, the priest traces a cross on Joelle’s forehead with Oil of the Catechumens, and says, “Joelle, receive the sign of the Cross on your forehead and in your heart, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Some months later, at her baptism, the priest will mark Joelle’s forehead with a second cross, using Holy Chrism, and say, “Joelle, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen.”
The church is packed this Sunday. Everyone is dressed in bright reds, oranges and yellows. It is the Feast of Pentecost, and the Bishop is here for his annual visitation. In addition, there are a number of people, both adults and youth, to be confirmed. What a joyful day—the entire church gathered together—people, deacons, priests, and bishop. As the bishop greets each confirmand, he places his hands on the person’s head, praying, “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant N. with your Holy Spirit; empower him/her for your service; and sustain him/her all the days of his/her life.” He traces a cross on each forehead with fragrant Oil of Chrism, the same oil that is also used in baptism. They will be able to smell the sweet fragrance of holiness all day long.
Anointing with oil is an ancient religious tradition, and there are numerous references in scripture: from Psalm 23, to the anointing of future King David, to the instruction to call the elders of the church to pray and anoint someone who is ill. There are three kinds of holy oil used in the Episcopal Church: Oil of the Sick, Oil of the Catechumens, and Holy Chrism. These oils are blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass. This year it will be held on Tuesday of Holy Week, March 22, at 11 a.m. in the Cathedral. Bishop Sean and the clergy of the diocese will also renew their ordination vows at this service. Everyone is encouraged to attend as we support each other prayerfully in our lives together.
Each year, a new supply of blessed oils is provided to all the parishes of the diocese. Even when we use them in our separate locations, the fact that they have been blessed as we all gather together helps remind us that we are One.
But with the arrival of the new supply, comes the eternal question, “What to do with last year’s oils?” Pushing them to the back of the tabernacle; secreting them in the darkest recesses of the sacristy, only to be unearthed by future generations of Altar Guild directors; or hiding them inside the altar (all stories we’ve heard, by the way), doesn’t seem very sensible. The issue is, of course, that oil does spoil over time. It is blessed, so it can’t simply be dumped down the drain. If your church has a piscina, it can be poured down, but at the risk of clogging the drains.
The best solution for disposing of holy oils reverently is to burn them. If you bring the old oils to Chrism Mass, either Canon Anne Kitch or I will be happy to have them. The oil lamps that we use in our prayer corners are fueled with outdated holy oils. Not only does this provide a quiet reminder of Christ’s presence in our rooms, it reminds us to pray for all of you, our local family in Christ.
You may wish to try burning the oils yourself. There are a number of ways to do that. Best of all is an icon (vigil) or a ceramic lamp. Supplies are available at links below. Please be aware that many of the so-called “oil candles” require a special kind of liquid paraffin, and will not work with holy oils, which are made from olive oil.
Instructions for burning oils from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross