Anointing with Oil in Antiquity and in the Christian Church

"The first mention of the apostles using anointing with oil for healing the sick was made during the life of Christ, 'They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them' (Mk. 06:13)."

Originally appeared at: The Catalogue of Good Deeds

The anointing with oil (primarily as a remedy for bodily ailments) has been widespread among the peoples of the Middle East since ancient times. The first symbolic mention of oil in the Bible was in the form of an olive branch in the beak of a dove, symbolizing the reconciliation of man with God after the Flood (Gen. 08:10-11).

Historically, anointing in the Church goes back to the instruction, established through Moses, to anoint with consecrated oil Aaron and all his descendants, who became priests in the Jerusalem Temple (or, before its construction, in the Tabernacle).

The Hebrew practice of using oil as a remedy is described in the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:6; Jer. 8:22; 51:8).

Oil (olive oil originally) was also used, along with lambs and grain, as a sacrificial offering. “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: …one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil… a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord”(Ex. 29:38-41). According to the Lopukhin’s Explanatory Bible (1904), “The main gifts bestowed by the Creator as means for the preservation of human life and for earthly contentment (Ps. 103:14, 15), also served as the subjects of the bloodless sacrifice thus fully and clearly reflecting its main idea, i. e., one of self-sacrifice.

The first mention of the apostles using anointing with oil for healing the sick was made during the life of Christ, “…They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mk. 06:13). These actions of the apostles are considered the archetype of the future sacrament.

The special significance that the ancient Greeks and Romans attached to rubbing with oils, including olive oil, has been described by Celsus, Galen and many others. Christians used oil for baptisms and during illness, as a healing remedy sanctified by prayer. “Exorcised oil” was used to cast out evil spirits and, finally, oil was used in the sacrament, as a visible sign of the healing grace of God.

The early Christians continued to widely use oil as medication, alongside with its sacramental use. References to the non-sacramental use of oil are found in the works of Tertullian, Ephrem the Syrian, Theodoret of Cyrus, and many others. Nevertheless, the first Christians perceived oil not only as an ordinary medicine, but also as a remedy acquiring its healing power in the consecration and the patient’s faith.

Oil could be consecrated not only by the clergy, but also the laity, both men and women (Prof. A. Katansky; An Outline of the History of the Ritual Side of the Sacrament of Unction). According to the belief of the church and the testimony of St John Chrysostom, oil became sacred even through simply being in a church.

References to the sacred use of oil are found in the writings of Origen, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose and Augustine Aurelius. All these fathers reminded the sick of oil being a grace-filled means of healing not only bodily, but also spiritual ailments, that is, the forgiveness of sins.

The testimony of Pope Innocent I (4-5th centuries) is of primary importance in relation to the Mystery of Holy Unction. In his epistle to Bishop Decentius, Innocent discusses the anointing with oil, describing the immiscible, coexistence of its two essences, medical and sacramental.

It is rather difficult to say what the Anointing of Sick looked like before the 9th century, when it acquired the shape, known to us today. We know that in the beginning it was very simple and consisted of only a few psalms and prayers. The original brevity of the service order is evidenced by the prescription of Hincmar, archbishop of Reims (8th century), obliging presbyters to learn it by heart.

The most ancient prayers included in the modern service of the holy unction are the first prayer for the consecration of the oil (“O Lord, Who in Your mercy and bounties…”, the third prayer read during the anointing the sick (“O Master almighty, holy King…”) and, finally, the prayer: “O Master, Lord our God, Physician of souls and bodies…”

There are two main interpretive models for the use of oil in the Church. The first model, called sacramental, is traditional for historical Churches and understands Holy Unction as an originally established Church Sacrament, in which a believer receives grace from God through prayer. All of the above information about the perception of oil in the conscience of the Church corresponds to this model.

The sacramental model was criticized for the first time with the beginning of the Reformation era, primarily because there were virtually no references to sacred anointing with oil and subsequent healing in Christian literature before the 5th century.

However, there are descriptions of cases of healing through other means, such as the laying on of hands (most often), the spell of the sick in the name of the Lord, the blessing of water, and so on. According to the remedial model, anointing with oil is a remedy, on the same level as those mentioned above.

This model is based on the following provisions: Sources with special prayers for consecrating the oil for the sick appear after the 3rd century. The consecration of water for healing, as well as the laying-on of hands on the sick as a liturgical action have also been known since the 3rd century. The patristic and hagiographic literature of the 4th-6th centuries contain many stories of miraculous healings, performed by the saints using oil, but not connected with the sacrament of Holy Unction.

The downside of this model is the fact that it is based solely on assumptions that there are no objective reasons to identify anointing with oil with other healing means. Also, this model does not distinguish between anointing with oil and the sacrament of Unction. This model finds response neither in the history of the Church nor in the theology of the Fathers, and was created artificially for the sake of controversy with historical Churches.

It can be concluded that anointing with oil is not in itself a healing action (except for certain skin lesions). It is rather a sign of healing, given to the sick from God through the body of priesthood and the prayer of the Church. Such an explanation shows the sacrament of Holy Unction, not as a magical rite, granting instant healing, but as a dedicated prayer of the Church for the sick. The healing of the sick takes place according to the will of God, whereas oil is a sign of His boundless mercy.

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