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Oil: a reflection from the Canon Theologian

Genesis chapter 28 tells the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder descending from heaven to earth. When he awakes from the dream he is awestruck and says “Truly the Lord is in this place and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). To mark the importance of this realisation, he took the stone he had been using as a pillow and poured oil over it.

Exodus 30:26-28 explains to us the significance of this rather strange act. In that chapter we have the first full account of the use of oil to mark out things as set aside for holy use; things like tables and lampstands–things that would otherwise have been simply part of the ordinary furniture of any house. That chapter also describes how people can be set aside for a holy commission. Aaron and his sons are anointed with oil as priests. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we see that prophets can be anointed with oil, but especially the anointing came to be associated with the commissioning of kings. This anointing oil is made according to a special recipe that combines olive oil with other perfumed herbs and spices (and according to some translations, cannabis).

This anointing people with oil is what we might now describe as a sacrament. Using an ordinary commodity to mark God’s presence and interest in important occasions in the journey of life, sacraments have their place in baptism, confirmation, marriage, illness and death. Increasingly nowadays, oil is the ‘ordinary’ commodity that is used sacramentally to symbolize and mark the presence of God, for us, in ordinary places and events; thus noting the extraordinary within the ordinary and the sacred in the commonplace.

The symbolic importance of oil is of general interest at the moment as the blessing of the Coronation oil in Jerusalem has been widely reported. In the Coronation service itself, the anointing with oil is perhaps the most profound moment in the whole occasion. It is not officially a sacrament, but it certainly ticks sacramental boxes. Without it, this might be simply a ceremony to mark the start of a new job. The anointing is meant to signify that it has a greater significance.

In the Old Testament (as we see in the so-called enthronement Psalms) this anointing carried with it a host of responsibilities to maintain the Covenant between God and the people of God: in other words, to maintain justice, mercy, truth, righteousness and peace in society, and to care especially for the poor and dispossessed. This is rather different from the speeches delivered on the steps of number 10 Downing Street, or at Presidential Inauguration ceremonies, in which successful candidates set their own goals and set out their own vision.

The Coronation service is rather more like an initiation sacrament of baptism and confirmation. In 1953 the new Queen entered the Abbey in a simple linen garment. Only after the anointing was she dressed in regal robes. The prayer that accompanied the anointing is almost identical with that used to invoke the Holy Spirit at a confirmation service.

At this time in our liturgical calendar, we are encouraged to think about various anointings of Jesus.

In Matthew and Mark’s Gospels the Passion account begins with an anointing by a young woman. Its significance is heightened by Jesus’s claim that wherever his story is told, “what she has done will be told as her memorial.” Darkly, he describes this as anointing for his death.

Luke does not record this. For Luke, Jesus has identified himself as anointed from the outset, with a sermon in the Synagogue at Nazareth in which he quotes Isaiah, “the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

Mark and Luke describe how the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning are bringing spices to anoint Jesus’s body. In the Bible, anointing signals the presence and interest of God at a new stage, a new beginning, and that is its role here. Jesus is anointed and confirmed as prophet, priest and king. It’s an anointing that signals a new stage, a new age, and new possibilities for us all.

John Holdsworth, Canon Theologian 

Main image: His Beatitude Theophilos III and Archbishop Hosam Naoum consecrated the Coronation oil at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on 3 March 2023

The oil was made using olives from the Mount of Olives Monastery of Mary Magdalene, burial place of King Charles’s grandmother Princess Alice of Greece

Photo credit: The Royal Household