The application or pouring of oil on a person or an object as a sacred rite, practiced from time immemorial by various peoples and in several religions. It is known in Arabic as mash.
Anointing was common for both religious and mundane purposes, to consecrate certain persons or set particular things apart as sacred. Jacob took the stone he had used for his pillow and set it up as a monument, pouring oil over the top of it (). Mosaic law prescribed the anointing of persons, places, and vessels in consecrating the tabernacle of the congregation, the Ark of the Covenant, the table and its furnishings, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense and their vessels, and the basin and its stand (). Priests, prophets, and kings were also anointed to consecrate their lives to the service of God.
Self-anointing with fragrant oil and unguents was a common practice as a sign of gladness of celebration and as an indication that a period of mourning was over (e.g., ; ). Anointing the head or feet of a special guest was a sign of particular esteem and hospitality (); thus Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment of spikenard ().
Anointing may be applied to persons and objects for religious purposes. With persons, two special kinds of consecration oil are used in the ritual of the catechumenate, which is part of the baptismal rite of the Coptic church. The first is the oil of catechesis, which is applied prior to the renunciation of Satan. The priest anoints the person to be baptized first on the forehead, saying, “I anoint you [name] in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God; oil of catechesis for [name] in the Holy, One Only, Universal and Apostolic Church of God, Amen.” Then he anoints him on the heart, the palm and wrist of the right hand, and the palm and wrist of his left hand, saying, “May this oil bring to nought all the opposition of the adversary, Amen.”
The second is the oil of exorcism, called the gallielaion (from the Greek meaning “cultivated olive,” thus pure olive oil). After the person to be baptized has renounced Satan, personally if he is a catechumen or through a parent or sponsor in the case of a child, and repeated the confession of faith, the priest anoints him on the heart, the two arms, the hands, and the back thirty-six times, saying, “I anoint you [name] with the oil of beatitude against all the deeds of the adversary, that you may be grafted into the sweet olive tree of the Holy Universal Apostolic Church of God, Amen.”
It is worthy of note that this anointing, as part of the prebaptismal service, was originally practiced by all churches, Eastern and Western alike. According to the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (1970), “Thou shalt first anoint him with holy oil and afterwards baptize him with water” (vii, 11: see also iii, 16). CYRIL OF JERUSALEM also stated, “Then, when ye were stripped, ye were anointed with exorcised oil, from the very hairs of your head to the soles of your feet. After that ye were led by the hand to the holy font of baptism” (1955, pp. xxii-xxiii; see also Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Colossians, p. 4).
The anointing of confirmation is done immediately following baptism. The priest takes the chrism and prays over it, saying, “Lord, to Whom alone is power, Who works all miracles, and to Whom nought is impossible, but through Thy Will, O Lord, Thy might is active in all things. Graciously grant that through the Holy Spirit in the outpouring of the Holy Chrism, it may become a living seal and confirmation to Thy servants, through Thy Only Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
After this prayer, the priest anoints the baptized person with the unction, working the sign of the cross with his right thumb thirty-six times on various parts of his body, saying, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. An unction of the grace of the Holy Spirit, Amen. An unction of a pledge of the Kingdom of the Heavens, Amen. An unction of the fellowship of life eternal and immortal, Amen. A holy unction of Christ our God and an indissoluble seal, Amen. The perfection of the Grace of the Holy Spirit and the breastplate of the Faith and the Truth, Amen. I anoint you [name] with the holy oil in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” The priest then lays his hand upon the baptized one and says, “May you be blessed with the blessings of the Heavenly and of the Angels. The Lord Jesus Christ bless you, and in His Name.” Here he breathes on the face of the baptized one, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit, and be a purified vessel through Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom is due Glory with His Righteous Father and the Holy Ghost.”
The first reference to anointing with the chrism after baptism was made by Tertullian (160-220): “After coming from the place of washing we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction, from the ancient discipline by which they were accustomed to be anointed with a horn of oil” (1970; see ). Likewise, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage: “It is also necessary that he should be anointed who is baptized, so that having received the chrism, that is, the anointing, he may be anointed of God, and have in him the Grace of Christ” (1951, p. 377; Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Bk. VII, 27, 42, 44, 1951, pp. 470-77).
While other Orthodox churches, both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian, prescribe unction with the chrism after baptism, they differ from the Coptic church in the way it is applied. According to the Greek church, the priest anoints the forehead, eyes, nostrils, ears, breast, hands, feet, and the back. In the Armenian church, the forehead, ears, eyes, nostrils, mouth, hands, breast, shoulders, feet, and shoulder blades are anointed. The Syrian churches prescribe the anointing of the entire body.
Anointing with the chrism was administered by bishops and by priests. Hilarion the Deacon (c. 291-371) stated that “among the Egyptians presbyters give the seal if a bishop be not present” (quoted in Scudamore, 1908, p. 2003). Later, Photius, patriarch of Constantinople (c. 810-895), asserted the right of priests to administer the unction of the chrism as they are entitled to administer the sacrament of baptism (p. 2002). In the sixteenth century, Gabriel Severus, metropolitan of Philadelphia in Asia Minor (1541-1616), stated, “The Eastern Church considerably permits it [the anointing with chrism] not to bishops only, but to presbyters also after the sacred rite of baptism” (p. 2002).
Anointing of Heretics
During the third century, a question that gave rise to much controversy was whether persons who were baptized by heretics and were later restored to the church had to be rebaptized. According to the Church of Rome, it was sufficient for such persons to be absolved, whereas in the churches of Egypt, Africa, Asia Minor, Syria, Cappadocia, Caclicia, and Galatia, they had to be rebaptized, as their other baptism was considered invalid. In 381 the Council of Constantinople (CONSTANTINOPLE, COUNCIL OF) affirmed the following procedure (Percival, 1956, p. 185):
Those who from heresy turn to orthodoxy, and to the portion of those who are being saved, we receive according to the following method and custom: Arians and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari or Aristeri, and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God. Thereupon, they are first sealed or anointed with the holy oil upon the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears; and when we seal them, we say, “The Seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost.’ But Eunomians, who are baptized with only one immersion, and Montanists, who are here called Phrygians, and Sabellians, who teach the identity of Father and Son, and do sundry other mischievous things, and [the partisans of] all other heresies—for there are many such here, particularly among those who come from the country of the Galatians:—all these, when they desire to turn to orthodoxy, we receive as heathen. On the first day we make them Christians; on the second, catechumens; on the third, we exorcise them by breathing thrice in their face and ears; and thus we instruct them and oblige them to spend some time in the Church, and to hear the Scriptures; and then we baptize them.
Unction of the Sick
Unction of the sick is one of the seven sacraments of the church, in keeping with the teaching of James the Apostle: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (). From (“they . . . anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them”) one learns that the practice was carried out by the disciples and apostles in fulfillment of the commandments of Christ. Accordingly the early fathers of the church emphasized its significance, among whom were ORIGEN, Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Victor, presbyter of Antioch.
In the Coptic church, this sacrament (known in Arabic as mashat al-marda or salat al-qandil) may be performed by any person at any time. It is preceded by confession and an avowal of true repentance. If the sick person’s condition does not permit him to go to church for the service, the actual unction may be given to him on his sick bed by the priest. The service is also performed for all the congregation once a year on the last Friday before Passion Week, which begins the Sunday before Palm Sunday, when all those who are present are anointed by the bishop or the priest. The service comprises seven prayers; hence, ideally, seven priests should take part. Any number, however, will do, and often one priest alone performs it.
During the service of matrimony, the priest prays over the oil of anointing, saying, “O Master, Lord God Almighty, Father of our Lord and our God and our Savior Jesus Christ, Who with the fruit of the sweet olive tree anointed priests, kings and prophets, we pray Thee, Good Lover of man, to bless this oil with Your blessing. May it be an oil of sanctification to Thy servants [names].” Then he anoints the bridegroom and the bride, while the deacons sing part of : “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup overflows.” The Coptic church is apparently unique in following this practice, which is immediately succeeded by placing crowns on their heads.
Anointing of Kings
This service (known in Arabic as tartib mashat al-muluk) used to be performed immediately before the crowning of a king or emperor. The patriarch would pray over the oil of anointing, saying, “Send, O Lord, from Thy Sacred Heights . . . and the Throne of Thy Kingdom’s Glory, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, upon this oil with which we anoint [name]. Let it be a sacred anointing, a holy oil, an oil of joy, a royal anointing, a girdle of light, a vestment of salvation, a protection of life, a spiritual grace for the purification of soul and body, an eternal joy . . . , a breastplate of power to sanctify Your servant [name] whom thou hast called king [emperor] . . . in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Then he anoints him on the forehead, eyes, nostrils, heart, and hands.
Consecration of Buildings and Objects
When a church is consecrated, it is anointed with the chrism after prayers of consecration. The priests carry vessels of water, crosses, candles, censers, and the ornamented Gospel in front of the bishop, chanting various appropriate hymns until he comes to the window in the eastern wall behind the altar. He sprinkles it with water, saying, “Unto a holy consecration of the House of God.” Then he takes the pot of the chrism and consecrates the middle part of the window in front of the altar, making the sign of the cross with his thumb, saying, “We consecrate this place for a Catholic church of . . . , in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He consecrates all windows, columns, and corners of the church, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God, now and forever, Amen.” He also consecrates the altar by pouring the holy oil upon the table three times in the form of the cross, saying, “Alleluia, How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts . . . .” Finally, he consecrates the baptismal font with chrism, anointing it five times, saying, “We consecrate this font for the name of Saint John the Baptist, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (See also BAPTISTERY, CONSECRATION OF.)
Consecration of Vessels and Icons
New vessels, the paten, chalice, spoon, and the like have to be anointed with the chrism before use. Similarly, all icons are consecrated after the reading of the appropriate prayers prescribed for the purpose. (See EUCHARISTIC VESSELS.)
In all the above-mentioned cases, anointing is performed by making the sign of the cross with the right thumb, a practice common to Eastern and Western churches.
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