A significant liturgical event during Holy Week is the Chrism Mass. Often it takes place on the morning of Holy Thursday, but dioceses around the world do it differently. Here in Melbourne, for example, this year’s Chrism Mass took place in the evening of Tuesday 12 April at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Even though this Mass doesn’t feature prominently in Catholic consciousness, it has a long history, reaching back to the earliest centuries of the Church.

Why is the Chrism Mass important?

This Mass is especially important for priests. One of the unique features of it is that all the priests of the diocese gather together around their bishop, who blesses the oils that are going to be used in the Sacraments throughout the year ahead. It is designed to manifest and strengthen the unity of the priests with their local shepherd, the bishop.

Historically, the blessing of the oils took place during the Holy Thursday evening Mass, beginning the Easter Triduum, which is also a special commemoration of Christ’s institution of the ministerial priesthood. Pope Pius XII changed this during his pontificate so that it was a separate Mass altogether. However, the connection to the ministerial priesthood remains.

Lay people are strongly encouraged to participate in the Chrism Mass because it is a stronger sign of the unity of the Church: the bishop, his priests, and the lay faithful together.

What are the oils?

There are three oils blessed. There is the oil of catechumens (also known as the oil of exorcism, which is used in Baptism); the oil of the infirm (used in the Anointing of the Sick); and the oil of holy chrism (which is a mixture of olive oil and basalm, an aromatic resin, used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders).

The aromatic resin in the oil of holy chrism is important: it is a reminder that we are called to give off the “odour of sanctity”, or, in St Paul’s words, the ‘sweet smell’ of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14).

As Archbishop Peter A Comensoli said in his homily on Tuesday:

These oils for anointing, to be used in a wide variety of settings, will feature in small and large ways in the lives of God’s faithful throughout our local Church in Melbourne: at baptisms with an intimate group of families; in a hospital by the bedside of a dying patient, during Confirmations of our young people; at priestly ordinations and church dedications. Our anointing oils are the stuff of sacramental grace, for generous application on the heads and hands of God’s holy people.’

What is the significance of the oils?

Oils were a staple of ancient Jewish religious ritual. While it held ordinary significance in terms of cooking and lighting fires, it was also a means of anointing, of consecrating someone or something for a specific, sacred purpose. Frequently, this was either a priest, a prophet, or a king. Anointing with oils was also the sign of blessing from the Lord, a sign of God’s strength and favour: ‘God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness, above all your rivals’ (Psalm 45:7).

This carried over into early Christian worship. In the epistle of James, for instance, we read that the sick are to present themselves before the priests of the Church for anointing with oil (Jas 5:14-15).

On the significance of the oils, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

Its full force can be grasped only in relation to the primary anointing accomplished by the Holy Spirit, that of Jesus. Christ (in Hebrew “messiah”) means the one “anointed” by God’s Spirit . . . Now, fully established as “Christ” in his humanity victorious over death, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit abundantly until “the saints” constitute – in their union with the humanity of the Son of God – that perfect man “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”’ (§695).

In other words, the oils used in the Sacraments of the Church are only understood in relation to Christ. Christ fulfils the human vocation by being completely surrendered to God; Jesus is fully consecrated, anointed, and set aside for God’s purposes. What is that purpose?

Ultimately, the Catechism says, it is divine blessing:

From the beginning until the end of time the whole of God’s work is a blessing’ (§1079).

God has only ever wanted to bless His people. Through His life, death and resurrection, Christ won for His people a new and abundant life, no longer enslaved to the powers of sin and death.

The Sacraments are His means of blessing us with that life. Under the New Covenant, then, the oils take on a more powerful significance, because they are Christ blessing us, the One who fully lived what it meant to be “anointed” by God.

‘It is the Anointed One – the Christ – who is the divine agent who brings us into his life,’ said Archbishop Comensoli.

In Jesus, the Christ, we are renewed, reconciled and reconfigured. In him we are reborn. For the Spirit of the Lord had been given to Jesus, so that we might partake in his anointed life, and ourselves then sent to bring the gift of God’s good news into the daily reality of our circumstances.’

Chrism Mass and the Priesthood

The Chrism Mass is also the context for deep reflection upon the ministerial priesthood of the new covenant. While every Christian is by virtue of their baptism a priest, there remains a specific and sacramental priesthood that is uniquely connected to Christ’s own.

In his 2006 Chrism Mass homily, Pope Benedict XVI said:

So it is that the priesthood also became something new: it was no longer a question of lineage but of discovering oneself in the mystery of Jesus Christ. He is always the One who gives, who draws us to himself. He alone can say: “This is my Body . . . this is my Blood”. The mystery of the priesthood of the Church lies in the fact that we, miserable human beings, by virtue of the Sacrament, can speak with his “I: in persona Christi. He wishes to exercise his priesthood through us.’

It is Christ who acts in and through the Church. The Sacraments are the way in which we share in Christ’s life-giving work. In blessing the oils, and in using them to bless others, we see and smell Christ at work, blessing those lost and far away with His divine, abundant life.