Today I will mention two things about something oft ignored in the Church: oil. More precisely, about a scented oil whose name gives away the origins of our being called Christian.
Fr. John-Julian, OJN, writes in his Elements of Offering, which one can download here, that “traditionally, Holy Chrism has balsam added to it—and quite a lot, so that the scent is very obvious. (Ancient writers tell of the scent filling the whole church!)” (p. 46) He is speaking of an oil which we can find in churches bottled up and marked with a label, conventionally the initials SC (Sanctum Chrisma).
In the liturgy of Baptism, this scented oil, which was called chrism, or myrrh, is used right after the baptism itself, a symbol of our being anointed—and more importantly, a sign that one is a follower of Jesus Christ, whose title literally means “anointed one.” And this anointing has always, at least in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions (and even in the latter, those that use chrism at all), been an outward sign of the Spirit which descended upon Christ at his baptism and in a sense anointed Christ, declaring him to be the one on whom God’s favor rests. Hence, the sign of chrism at baptism, and its repetition on other occasions, is a sign of the Spirit, and of our sharing in Christ’s kingly, priestly, and prophetic mission.
However, the Gospels tell of Christ being anointed by an unnamed woman—and Judas (in John’s account) complaining about the amount of scented oil consumed, only to face a rebuke by Jesus. It reminds me of people who complain about the kind of ritualistic nonsense which, they say, is unnecessary for Christians to do, including of course the act of chrismation, not to mention other things like the Eucharist, incense, etc. (Whether comparing them to Judas Iscariot is fair or not is beyond the scope of this essay.)
I can only say that signs are important in a sacramental universe, where in a general way, as John Macquarrie argues in his A Guide to the Sacraments, some sense of the transcendent is revealed to us in the world and of course, we fail to recognize it sometimes. The sign of chrism is yet another thing set apart, like water, bread, and wine, and ourselves, to show forth something beyond our seeing. That of course explains SC.
Of course, John-Julian also advises that if your SC does not smell good enough, add more scent. It isn’t chrism if the balsam isn’t smelt at all!
The reason I was reminded of chrism was because of how Nathan Mitchell described the ceremony of consecrating a church. In the Roman rite, for instance (and which was what he witnessed), the building’s walls are sprinkled with water and crosses are marked on the wall in chrism. (Does that sound familiar?)
Well, here’s how he described the rite of consecration: “a rarely performed rite that consists chiefly in the solemn baptism of the building, with water flung in every direction, and crosses traced with chrism in the walls.”
Indeed, the parallel between our baptism and the setting apart of a church building is something to think about. And should not be dismissed as useless ritual.