At the Liturgy on Wednesday of Holy Week (the Eve of Holy Thursday), we bless the holy oils: the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens. A third oil, the Oil of Chrism, used for Chrismation, is blessed by our Patriarch. At the end of the Holy Wednesday service, the faithful are anointed with Oil of the Sick in the sacrament of Unction, as all are in need of the healing that only God can provide – healing of body and soul. We are grateful to Fr. James Russo for compiling the following information about this service.
One of the earliest references to the Unction Mass is found in the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome. It is obvious that here the oils were blessed during the Easter Vigil and immediately used. Three oils are distinguished: Chrism, Oil of Exorcism (Our Oil of the Catechumens) and Oil of the Sick.
Concerning the Oil of the Sick, Hippolytus writes, “If anyone offers oil, let him [the bishop] give thanks in the same way as for the offering of bread and wine [not using the same words but expressing the same idea] and say, ‘Lord, just as by sanctifying this oil, with which you anointed kings, priests and prophets, you give holiness to those who are anointed with it and receive it, so let it bring comfort to those who taste of it and health to those who use it’.”
By the end of the fifth century the blessing of the oils had been transferred to Holy Thursday. The Gelesian Sacramentary of Rome (7th century) describes three Masses for Holy Thursday, in the second of which the oils are blessed. From a variety of sources of varying antiquity – including the Gelesian and Gregorian Sacramentaries – we are able to form a picture of the Chrism Mass as it was celebrated in Rome in the 9th century. Prior to Mass the pope prepared a vessel of oil and balsam that would become the Chrism; a second vessel was prepared which would be used for the Oil of Catechumens. The laity brought to the church vessels of oil that they placed on the altar rail. These would become the Oil of the sick. Near the end of the Eucharistic prayer the deacons brought several of these last vessels for the pope to bless. Priests and other bishops who were concelebrating the Eucharist blessed the remaining vessels. After he received Communion the pope blessed the Chrism and the Oil of Catechumens and Mass continued with Communion of the clergy and laity.
St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Hippolytus, and St. Augustine’s biographer all mention bishops visiting the sick to pray for them, and in the 4th century Euchologian of Serapion, a ritual for laying on of hands is given. The first mention of anointing the sick on Holy Thursday is found in the Carolingian supplement to the Sacramentary of Hadrian (8th or 9th century) where the anointing is located after the service of the reconciliation of penitents.
In the Western Rite the oils are blessed on Holy Thursday morning (or Holy Wednesday evening) testifying that the sacraments in which these oils will be used are the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery and give men a participation in that mystery. It is for this reason that the oils are blessed during the celebration of the Eucharist itself. In the case of the Oil of the Sick the blessing occurs during the Anaphora, illustrating that it is the power of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that heals. It is only because of the Paschal mystery and Christ’s Ascension into Heaven that the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and giver of Life” is sent among men for healing and the forgiveness of sins.
Is any sick among you? Let him call for the priests of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. [James 5:14-15]