Now for Something Kooky: The Meaning of Olive Oil

olive Oil 3A postscript to yesterday’s thoughts on Confirmation:

Olive oil plays a key role in several of the sacraments: Confirmation, Baptism (where it anticipates Confirmation), Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders, as well as the fabulous rite of blessing a new church or altar. The symbolism is a bit obscure.

But it’s important to appreciate that the symbols are key to the sacraments. We know what the sacraments mean when they evoke bathing, eating, and marriage. The symbolism of Confession – saying you are sorry for your sins – is so strikingly obvious as to be almost hard to notice. And it’s even pretty easy to understand what laying on hands means: if you can ever attend an Ordination, you will find that act beautifully evocative. The sacraments are not “just” symbols, but they work through symbols, and the symbolism is important to fully appreciating them.

But what about anointing? What the heck is the Bishop doing when he puts oil on people’s heads?

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For the Psalmist, this is a powerful symbol. It is not just a random sign of choosing, but a sign of richness and blessing:

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5).

“God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows” (Ps. 45:7).

“I shall be anointed with fresh oil” (Ps. 92:10).

“Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not damage my face” (Ps. 141:5).

It seeps deep into the body:

“As he clothed himself with cursing as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones” (Ps. 109:18).

“The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Ps. 55:21).

And, my personal favorite, it makes your face shine:

“He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Ps. 104:14-15).

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Olive oil was the cosmetic of the ancient world, as important to hygiene as it was to cooking. In fact, there is a movement now to rediscover it: as a face cleanser, a moisturizer, and a lubricant for shaving. Clean oil actually does a remarkable job, on the one hand, washing away dirty oils, and on the other, seeping into the skin to nurture it.

If that sounds totally weird to you, maybe you should try it. Try it precisely because it is unfortunate if the symbolism of the sacraments creeps you out. If you think wine is poison (instead of it “gladdening your heart,” as in Psalm 104 above), it is hard to appreciate the joy of the Eucharist; if you hate baths and showers, Baptism loses its luster. But so too you miss out on the rich symbolism of several sacraments if you’ve never experienced the healthy “shine” (Ps. 104) and “seeping in” (Ps. 109) of olive oil.

Put it this way: on your death bed, God willing, you will be anointed with olive oil: hopefully the most powerful sacramental experience of your whole life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you were ready to appreciate that experience?

Try a little, just on your hands . . . .

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By the way: it’s worth noticing, in passing, what anointing with olive oil can teach us about cosmetics. In short, the difference is both subtle and vast between a paint meant to make you look like something you’re not, and things like olive oil that bring out the radiance of your own beauty: the difference between truth and falsehood.

eric.m.johnston

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