What is the purpose of anointing with oil?
In the Catholic Church, we have several sacraments that we observe as well as religious holidays that require reflection and spiritual growth. The Catholic theology recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick. During these moments in our lives, priests will often take their leadership to another level in mass and anoint us with holy oils. Many people outside of the Catholic traditions do not understand the importance of this tradition and seem to view it as a priest overstepping, but this is truly an act of humility and connection with God that is crucial to our faith.
The Bible discusses holy oils and anointing of the sicks multiple times throughout scripture, so this is not an idea that is unique to Catholicism. Protestants use these anointing oils as well, but it is not as common and they are often used during prayer and blessing done by regular people rather than done by a priest. In Catholic tradition, the priest is the one who has the responsibility and authority to bless others with holy oil and it would be highly unusual to see the action come from anyone else. In the early Jewish traditions that we see in the Bible, some used oil to anoint another’s head as a way of welcoming them into their home. However, there were more ritualistic practices as well when Jews would use oil to anoint a body before burial.
The Jewish tradition used oil in almost every part of their faith. When they had an item or sacrifice that they wanted to dedicate to God, they would anoint it with oil to mark that. The Jewish people would also use oil to consecrate their places of worship, wherever that was. In Exodus, the Jews were instructed to use a fragrant holy oil to anoint the meeting tent but also to anoint the Ark of the Covenant and the table, lampstand and other tools that were to be used in the time of worship. They were even told to use it on their altar of incense.
David mentions holy oil used for anointing multiple times in the Psalms as well, which is how we know that it is relevant to our personal journey with God as individuals. David mentions that the Lord anoints his head with oil as though to demonstrate the blessings and strength given to him by our God. There is even mention that God has anointed you with the oil of gladness as though to demonstrate the joy that we should feel by having a blessed relationship with God. Those with intense spiritual gifts like prophesy and others throughout the Bible also mention being anointed with their gifts and often mention oil as well, so we know that there is a significance in symbolism with oil that other tools do not share.
Of course, being anointed with holy oil is not a requirement of the faith, but it is a common practice for a reason. It has so much significance in the Scriptures that the leaders of the Catholic Church felt that it was important to make the use a part of regular rituals in recognizing the sacraments. It simply heightens and enhances our communion with God during these traditions and allows us to feel that strength and blessing that is built into the symbolism of anointing with oil. Many priests will even use holy oil right before a baptism as a way to bless and cleanse our spirits prior to taking this huge step in our faith. Others will be likely to use the holy oil when praying over someone who is sick or whose spirit is particularly broken.
Holy oil doesn’t replace our prayers, it does not open the door of communication for that process. However, amongst the benefits of the anointing, it provides additional comfort and strength and it serves as a reminder that we are anointed by our Father God in every day of our lives.
To sum up, why do we anoint with oil? It reminds us to be grateful for our faith and our relationship with God and with the saints. It gives us a physical representation of what our prayers are for, and in that regard it can be very valuable to our spiritual growth.