Have you ever wondered what constituted a “holy anointing oil” in the Bible? We know what Moses used but what did Jesus use? That of course has been lost in history. One thing is for sure-he was not using cooking or lamp oil. For the early Christian church, olive oil played an important role, especially in the Oriental Christian rites. However, they rarely used olive oil by itself. It was mixed with a fragrant element. Until about the thirteenth or fourteenth century this fragrant element was balsam. (Recent research shows that balsam may have been the “Balm of Gilead.”) Prayers were said over the oil asking God to ‘sanctify’ the oil, that is, make it sacred so that the Holy Spirit could act through it. This sanctified oil was referred to as the “oil of anointing,” the “oil of prayer,” “oil of grace,” “oil of joy,” or “myron.” Once the oil was empowered through this prayer, it became a vehicle for sanctification so the healing that came from the oil was a result of the power of the Holy Spirit.
What Was in the Recipe Given to Moses?
Moses was given a recipe for a holy anointing oil by God that contained four oils: Myrrh, Cinnamon, Cassia and Calamus with a very small amount of olive oil thrown in as well. This would have made the oil stay on the body longer since aromatic oils-essential oils as they are called today-evaporate quickly. Essential oils are the life blood of the plant and many are antimicrobial, relaxing or invigorating. Some common oils used through the centuries to fragrance the holy anointing oils include: Balsam, Cinnamon, Benzoin, Frankincense, Orange, Jasmine, Musk, Ambergris, Civet, and Bergamot.
Orthodox Christian Chrism
Holy oil (chrism) in the Orthodox tradition consisted of pure olive oil to which a good proportion of wine and a large number of other ingredients-plants and spices was added. This oil was symbolic of the manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit. It took three days to prepare this holy chrism which was blessed on Holy Thursday by the patriarch or metropolitan of each Orthodox Church. Byzantine chrism combined olive oil with between thirty-eight and fifty-seven aromatic substances, making it one of the most complex synergistic blends ever devised. If you have ever attended an Orthodox service, you know that generous amounts of incense and holy oils are used.
Roman Catholic Anointing Oils
In the Roman Catholic Church, there are three oils. Holy chrism-consecrated by the bishop, is used to anoint the newly baptized, to seal the candidates for confirmation and to anoint the hands of presbyters and the heads of bishops at ordination. This oil is also used to dedicate churches and altars. The oil of catechumens-used in the preparation of catechumens for their baptism. Oil for the sick used to bring comfort and support to those who are ill. There is very little difference in the make-up of these three oils. The base is pure olive oil with some fragrance provided by balsam or a similar sweet smelling oil.
Anointing in the Lutheran Church
The recipe for the anointing oil used in the Lutheran church according to the Lutheran Book of Worship (1982) called for the oil to be “olive oil to which an aromatic ingredient such as synthetic oil of cinnamon or oil of bergamot may be added.” This is the only reference I have found to a church using a “synthetic” oil in place of an essential oil. The symbolism of anointing has survived in this tradition if not the true meaning of healing body/mind/spirit with the oil.
How can we learn today the ancient art of healing with aromatic essential oils as anointing oils? Educational courses that are Christian-based can help us reclaim our rightful role in healing and anointing.