Laurence Hemming is one of the co-founders of the Temple Studies Group. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Lancaster and a Fellow, tutor in Philosophy and Liturgy, and member of the Advisory Board, of St. Bede’s Hall, an independent Catholic College in Oxford.  He has done extensive research on liturgy in the Roman Catholic tradition.  I also note that he has spent good time in Utah, has a number of LDS friends, and has spoken at Brigham Young University (about which I hope to post some details in the near future). Again, this post is composed of my own notes, for which I accept full responsibility, and should not be taken to represent Dr. Hemming’s paper verbatim.  For more on Laurence Paul Hemming, please see his website:

The Consecration of the Holy Oils in the Roman Tradition

presented by Laurence P. Hemming

In the Roman Catholic tradition anointing is very important — there are several sacraments that are accompanied by anointing.

Also, there is not one, but three different types of anointing oil:

  • The Oil of Catechumens
  • The Oil of the Sick
  • The Oil of Chrism

There is very little written on the origin of the anointing oil in the liturgy and even less on the theology.  There are a couple of themes that are predominant.


  1. That the oil is associated with the olive branch that is brought to Noah after the flood waters have withdrawn.  The commentators claim that the olive branch is “in the likeness of a gift to come.” The language of anointing is a mystery — the point of anointing is to connect us to “futurity” or eternity.  The bird bringing an olive branch is not a symbol of some particular gift that would come in the future, but the promise of eternity — of eternal life, or “godlikeness” itself.  The branch that the bird brings to Noah is, symbolically, a branch of the Tree of Life.
  2. The second theme regarding the origin of the oils is the tradition of making the oils themselves.  According to ancient tradition, the oils, especially the oil of Chrism, were made in the Cathedral, by the bishop, on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter, commemorating the Last Supper), in the Mass that celebrates the institution of the Mass, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Some say that this tradition came about in order to have oil prepared for the baptisms that would occur on Easter, but this is not likely the only reason.

The history of the three oils is quite complex.  First, the oil used for the sick could, in the primitive Church, be blessed not only by priests, but also by laymen. It could be blessed at a lay person’s home and kept on hand.  Only later on was the blessing of the oil more fully reserved for priests and later only bishops.  The oil was used not only for physical ailments, but more specifically for spiritual ills and its use was often accompanied by exorcism.

The oil of catechumens was also related to exorcism and was used repeatedly on adults preparing for baptism and at least once for infants.  Its history is much different than that of the oil for the sick, and traditionally prepared on Maundy Thursday in Rome by the Pope, and then elsewhere by bishops.  Since 1970, its use is not necessary, but is still usually used for exorcism before baptism.  This rite involves anointing the back and breast, but not the hands or face.

The oil of Chrism is different from the other two oils, both in make and use.  Its preparation involves a solemn consecration, while the other two are only blessed.  The Chrism is composed of olive oil mixed with myrrh (balsam), which mixture represents the two natures of Christ.  The Chrism is used in a number of different places and sacraments of the Church.

  • Newly baptized are anointed on the crown of the head
  • At confirmation, on the forehead
  • Priests are anointed on hands
  • Bishops on head and hands
  • Altars, church walls, bells, sacred vessels are also consecrated with Chrism

In further use, the waters used in the baptismal font, after being divided and part separated for use as “holy water,” the rest of the water is further blessed by adding the oil of Catechumens (called in this rite, the “oil of salvation”) and then adding the Chrism.  The two oils together in the water are the mixture “of the Chrism of sanctification and the oil of unction or baptism.”


There is very little commentary on the meaning and preservation of these traditions.  It is difficult to trace their history.  Some of the oldest commentators seem to be using liturgical texts as their source.  We should take seriously the tradition declared by Pope Fabian that the preparation of the Holy Chrism and the unction was originally taught personally by Christ to the Apostles.  Those who are interested in Temple traditions will not find this hard to accept.

The earliest text regarding the making of the oils is the Gelasian Sacramentary, which is the same as the Roman texts that were in use until the 20th century, when new instructions were adopted and changes made that, unfortunately, have obscured its meaning.

According to the ancient tradition, the oils were made on Maundy Thursday, the same day that the Church celebrates the institution of the Eucharist.  This connection is not accidental, nor merely functional.  There are further connections between the making of the oils and the Holy Eucharist.


The rite of the preparation of the oils is notably different than a normal Mass.

  • The bishop is accompanied to the altar by many more ministers than usual — seven deacons and seven subdeacons, and twelve priests — all in Mass vestments
  • For the only time in all of the liturgical cycle, the prayer of consecration of the Mass is interrupted, near the end, before the final doxology (praise)
  • The blessing and consecration of the oils is inserted at the most sacred point of the Mass, when the bread and wine are consecrated to become the body and blood of Christ.
  • Before completing the prayer of consecration, the bishop removes himself to the side of the altar, washes his hands (they have touched the host), and then goes to make the oil of the sick
  • He then returns to the Mass and continues to the point where he gives himself the Holy Communion

Chrism Liturgy

It is important that the oil for the healing of the sick is made before the completion of the Mass. This is a reduplication of the events of Maundy Thursday itself.  The healing of the sick is done before the events of Good Friday.  While the two other oils are blessed, the Chrism is made by confectio, confection, a term only used otherwise for the Holy Eucharist itself.  So, after the bishop gives himself the Holy Communion:

  • The deacons, subdeacons, and priests are given communion, and then all leave to go to the sacristy (the vestry, a small room near the altar), carrying the oils that are to be made into the oil of Catechumens and the Chrism
  • A hymn is sung and they there gather around the bishop

The symbolism here is that the bishop represents Christ, surrounded by the priests as the twelve apostles.  The deacons and subdeacons represent the seraphim attending the throne.  This represents, then, the idea that the Chrism is being made by Christ in heaven.

The Chrism is made by mixing balsam with oil.  The prayer for the blessing of the balsam refers to it as “a sweat flowing down from a felicitous branch, serving for priestly anointing.” In a second prayer, it is to be “a perpetual anointing for the sake of priesthood.” Some of the balsam and oil are then mixed and the third prayer then declares that this mixture represents the idea that man be “perennially returned to the double nature that he holds in singular material,” an explicit reference to the restoration of man to his original state and his deification.

The bishop then breathes three times upon the oil and the priests each do likewise.  At this point the rite has reference to Christ as the High Priest and the passing on of his priesthood to the Apostles.  The Chrism, above all else, symbolizes the action of the priesthood.  The effect of the oil is to bestow upon the anointed not just something perpetual, but perpetuity itself: the promise of the tree of life.  The word “joyful” is mentioned more than once in the accompanying prayers.

The Greek root of the Latin used here, hilarus, has the basic meaning of “to lighten or refresh.” When this word occurs in the Bible, it usually has reference to the face (Prov. 16:15).  The face is refreshed and lightened.  The prayer uttered at this point makes reference to David, who predicted the sacraments by singing that our faces were to be made glad, such that with the unction of this oil, our faces are made joyful and serene.


Why should oil on our face make us glad? This refers to the idea that face is made to shine when in the presence of God.  For example:

  • The face of Moses shone when he descended from Mt Sinai after being with the Lord
  • The Lord’s face shone when he was transfigured on the mount
  • Those who go up to the Temple have the glory of the Lord reflected in their faces

The purpose of the oil is to make one fit for being in the presence of the Lord.  Those persons and things which are anointed contain within themselves a measure of the divine presence.  The priesthood is passed on through anointing.  The priesthood has the power to confer the power of holiness. The oil is the agent used to confer holiness.


The Western Catholic tradition is that the priesthood was inaugurated, in this new dispensation, on Maundy Thursday.  From this day forward the levites are not those born into the levitical succession, but ordained into it, from out of whom priests are chosen and anointed.  This, according to Catholic understanding, is not the same as the origin of the priesthood of Christ.  Christ was a levite by birth through his mother Mary, whose cousin Elizabeth was mother of the levite John the Baptist, but Christ was also Melchizedek, whose priesthood is eternal.

The prayer of the consecration of the Chrism is of great significance.  It begins with reference to the tree of life, how when the earth was created, it was commanded to bring forth fruitful trees — the olive tree to provide the oil for the making of the Chrism.  It then makes reference to David, who declares the use of the oil on the face, then Noah and the symbolism of the olive branch.  Like in the flood, our sins are washed away at baptism and then we are anointed with the oil that makes our faces joyful and serene.  The prayer then refers to Moses and his consecration of a priest by unction, after washing with water.  This prepared the way, according to the prayer, for the great honor when Christ was baptized with water in Jordan and then the Holy Spirit fell upon him, fulfilling the words of the prophet David that Christ would be anointed with the oil of joy, in advance of his fellows (Ps. 45:7).


So on Maundy Thursday,  which celebrates the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ, with the mixing of the holy oils, we are called to remember also his baptism.  The baptism is normally celebrated on Epiphany, January 6th.  However, as Margaret Barker has helped us understand, the baptism is where the Father informs the Son of his heavenly birth and standing as Melchizedek, the eternal high priest.  It is made clear that the inception of the priesthood stems from the event of the baptism of the Lord — the great honor that explains the meaning of the Holy Chrism itself.   Thus, Origen had objected to the celebration of the Nativity — Christ’s earthly birth, and favored the celebration of Epiphany, the heavenly birth and outpouring of the Spirit.  The opening of the heavens to Jesus at his baptism indicate his taking possession of the heavenly city. At that point, he took possession of what was rightly his.  According to M. Barker, the open heavens, the waters, and the vision of the throne of God are all elements of becoming a priest.

The significance of the Holy Oils, then, is that through the anointing and the action of the priesthood, we become part of the heavenly birth of Christ and the New Jerusalem.

After the completion of singing the prayer of consecration, the bishop bows his head and sings three times, “ave sanctum chrisma,” and then kisses the ampule containing the holy oil.  The priests sing the same once, genuflecting before the ampule.

There is much yet to be understood concerning the theology of the holy oils in the Roman Tradition, but I hope that I have demonstrated how it can only be understood in the context of a Temple theology, a theology of the priesthood that takes us back to Adam in Eden, ritually signified by the Temple in Jerusalem.

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