Liturgical images and movements that speak to experience

Oil's Caress

Ancient peoples had a relationship with the land.  Its fruits provided them with the essentials of food, shelter, clothing, energy, and even a bit of comfort and pleasure in an often hostile world.  Because certain parts of their environment played such an important role in their sustenance and very survival, they were thought to be endowed with both natural and supernatural qualities that made the cycle of life possible and helped to give it meaning.  These powers were often released and celebrated through their ritual use.

Such is the basis of our ritual relationship with oil.  Found to have curative properties, it was thought to carry the life-force within it.  It’s soothing caress promised health and ease, refreshment and rejuvenation.  Its body and flavor added a richness to life and became associated with divine favor and human prestige.  What better creature to transmit blessing, honor and power.

Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean world, so naturally it is the oil of choice for those faith traditions that are rooted in its soil.  While this variety remains the canonical bias of the Christian Church in the celebration of its Sacraments, if we tap into the relationships described above, any oil is capable of carrying meaning—some will be even more relevant.  Societies which have gathered around corn, palm, fish or caribou will have deeper connections to the oils that have sustained them.  Even mineral oil has properties that make it an appropriate candidate for its ritual use (though its connections to organic life are millions of years removed from us).  Olive oil, however, has one association that tips the scales in its favor:  its traditional use by the Church across cultures; by using it our communion around the world and across the ages is realized. 

Whether we recognize it through a substance pressed from a tree’s fruit or in the life squeezed from a mother’s womb, grace is mediated through creation.  The movement of grace within the community of believers as they intercede for healing, reconciliation and blessing in Jesus’ name and in the power of the Holy Spirit—this is the focus of the following ritual celebrations.  Theologically they differ from celebrations of the Sacraments, for in them God does not move through the channels of ordination but rather through the baptism of all the faithful.  This distinction, however, does not diminish their power—for whenever we reach out to one another as the body of Christ we do so as his ministers in the world and as instruments of his compassion, mercy, and liberating love.  These rituals can, therefore, be celebrated in the absence of an ordained presider.


Ideally this ritual flows directly and purposefully out of the Prayers of the People.  When planning the service, organize one or more healing teams comprised of pastoral leaders within the community, those who have an active ministry to the sick and home-bound, and any others who have demonstrated a life of prayer and compassion.  On a stand or table within the worship space preset a small shallow bowl containing olive oil for each healing team; include finger towels.  (The oil can be perfumed with an infusion of herbs.)  Take precautions to protect altar linens from staining.   

(based on Isaiah 35:1-6)

Dear friends, the gift of oil brings refreshment. 
It has been an instrument of beauty, strength, and
healing throughout our memory.
Let us ask God to send the Spirit of life,
the Spirit of wholeness, the Spirit of liberty,
upon this vehicle of God’s soothing touch,
that it may be dedicated to our use and God’s glory . . . .

Tender Father, dearest Mother, Your grace is enough for us,
for in weakness your power reaches perfection. 
Through this oil and the prayers of our community,
strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
and melt the fear in our frightened hearts;
for you are in our midst with power to save. 
Show that power now,
that we may have even greater cause to boast of your glory. 
We ask this through the sacrament of your love—Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever.  Amen.

(based on James 5:13-16)

If any among you are suffering hardship, they must pray…
Are any sick among you?  Let them ask the community of believers. 
We in turn will pray over you, anointing you with oil in the Name of the Lord. 
This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim those who are ill,
and the Lord will restore them. 
Pray for one another, that you may find healing.


Healing teams take positions in upper sanctuary or other suitable place; the distance from the assembly and between individual teams should allow for some measure of auditory privacy.  Music, while adding to the liturgical focus of the community, can also help to muffle intentions and intercessory prayers.  Ministers of hospitality direct members of the community forward pew-by-pew; individuals should stop at the head of the aisle, waiting for their turn before advancing toward the team. 

While members of the team hold the oil vessel and towel, the prayer leader should ask the individual’s name and prayer request.  (Roles may rotate, if desired.)  The anointing is done on the forehead, in the form of a cross using a trinitarian formula.  Depending upon the team’s gifts and comfort level, intercession can be made silently or audibly as the Spirit moves.

Teams anoint music ministers after they minister to the assembly; lastly, they anoint each other.

The service moves directly into a communal Act of Thanksgiving.


Wherever the Romans went, they built baths.  Remnants of their passion are scattered across the ancient world.  Now, the bath experience was more than just a soak in a hot tub or an example of pagan self-indulgence (not that there’s anything wrong with creaturely comforts).  They went to the baths to rejuvenate their spirits as well as their bodies, an experience they shared with others… and oil played its part in it.  To clean, exfoliate, and condition the skin, the body would be massaged with fragrant oils; the residue would then be scraped off with a blade.  The early Church picked up on oil’s cleansing nature, using the Oil of Catechumens in its rituals of exorcism.

A contemporary practice more familiar to the modern spa goer is the hot oil massage.  Seeming to seep deep into the muscles, the slippery oil lubricates the process of kneading and manipulation that brings such relief to our aches and stiffness.  Certainly, the oil itself soothes and softens, but what really renews our bodies and invigorates our souls is the power of human touch.

Is it possible to appropriate into our liturgies a form of physical contact that is so sensual?  Certainly we’ve touched upon a long tradition of doing just that in the preceding chapter’s use of water rituals of service and welcome, i.e., hand- and footwashing.  What would a ritual massage after a hard, strenuous job (like building the frame of a Habitat For Humanity house) say about how we value work and appreciate volunteerism?  Would massaging the feet of the parish’s youth after a 10-K crop walk communicate support and pride on a deeper level than would monetary sponsorship alone?  Would the elderly residents of a nursing home feel cared for in a ritual massaging of their hands?  Shouldn’t the blessing of every expectant mother in her third trimester include a foot massage?  What depths of spirit would be aroused if the use of warm, scented oil was part of a couple’s first prayer as newlyweds?  After years of married life, what passion could it rekindle?  What avenues of reconciliation could it open?

There’s an old adage that warns, “back rubs almost always lead to sex.”  I bring this up as a cautionary note, for whenever one deals with any gesture of physical intimacy it is necessary to judge its appropriateness.  While not wanting to give in to unrealistic fears that might preclude genuine ministry, rituals involving any form of caress must be able to withstand public scrutiny.  Two areas of concern are professionalism and propriety:  for the safety of both minister and client, only certified (and in some cases licensed) practitioners should engage in one-on-one, closed-door touch—and, even if a ritual gesture is public, cultural mores and individual modesty dictate that only certain parts of the body are open to the caress of another.  As to this second point, areas considered touchable will vary greatly from person to person depending upon the gender identity and sexual orientation of both parties, the type of relationship they share, and their history of touch (what one person judges to be purely innocent may be highly offensive and threatening to someone who has a history of physical abuse).


It was a special oil the Hebrews used, olive oil scented with the finest of spices—free-flowing myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, cane and cassia, expertly blended into something special.  Using it, or even a similar blend, for secular purposes was strictly taboo; do so and you would be cut off from the community and its inheritance.  This mixture was considered sacred, reserved for only the holiest of purposes:  to make the objects and persons it touched holy, dedicating them for holy use.  As the oil poured over them, the nature of their being changed; no longer tools of common utility or individuals of independent initiative, henceforth, they would be instruments of the divine.

As with all Sacraments and sacramentals, the ritual action involving the oil was a vehicle for the activity of grace.  If we understand grace as the gift of God’s very self, the dynamic behind rituals of consecration become clear:  it is the presence of God that sanctifies; our rituals only serve to help us appreciate the fact.

As the children of Abraham blessed those material objects that would be used ritually to make their relationship with God a lived reality, the Christians who gained a share in the Israelites’ inheritance adopted their ritual use of oil.  Following their practice of anointing the places where God and the people met, as well as the furnishings used in their ritual sacrifices of adoration, thanksgiving, and atonement, Christ’s followers anointing their worship spaces and the altars on which they celebrated their communion with God achieved through Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  Over the centuries the Church has developed a whole repertoire of blessings through which objects are dedicated to God’s service. 

The Hebrew’s sacred texts also recount a long tradition of anointing priests, prophets and kings, consecrating them to God’s service and, by extension, to the service of humanity.  Jesus’ disciples—who had come to understand and acclaim him as the perfect vehicle of divine agency, fulfilling God’s desire for right relationship—in developing their own rituals, came to use oil as an instrument of their identification with him and his three-fold mission as priest, prophet and king in the Rites of Christian Initiation, and in a unique way in the Sacrament of Ordination. 

Scented oil is blessed by the local bishop once a year for use throughout his diocese.  Like the sacred anointing oil mentioned in Exodus 29:22-33, use of this sacred chrism is restricted.  Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and the dedication of altars and churches, however, need not be our only rituals of consecration.  A ritual dab of oil, done with the proper intention, can be a private, intimate or communal rite of blessing which brings us to an awareness of the holy in our lives.  Doesn’t the whole community of believers call upon the Holy Spirit to anoint newly installed pastoral ministers, Parish Council members and catechetical leaders, dedicating them for God’s service?  Think of the depths of communal memory that would be triggered if we used a bit of oil blessed for the occasion.  As an artist, I have anointed paintings which celebrate my relationship with God and God’s creation.  A cantor could consecrate her/his throat before leading the community in prayer.  A musician could set apart a particular instrument for liturgical use alone or dedicate every note played upon it, in or out of church, to the glory of God.  A family could anoint a new dining table as part of their first “grace” around its sides.  A couple could make sacred the posts of their bed, anticipating the blessings that will be born of their love.

What is a blessing, after all?  It is a ritual of recognition that grace is all around us.  When we become aware of a tremendous gift bestowed on us by God, we bless God’s holy name, give thanks, and are drawn into deeper relationship with the divine, more dedicated to living out all that such relationship entails.