The use of olive oil was extensive in the Old and New Testaments not only in cooking but also for medicinal purposes and in sacred ritual. Olive oil was considered a precious commodity and used sparingly. Olive trees are native to the Middle East and grow for hundreds of years. In 1 Samuel 16:13 David is anointed king of Israel. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” this passage illustrates the sacramental nature of the use of oil in highly significant religious moments. David is chosen by God as his anointed and commissions the prophet Samuel to anoint him as king of Israel. Samuel anoints David by pouring oil over his head. The traditional definition of a sacrament states that a sacrament is the outward sign of an inward grace. In the anointing of David, described as a sacramental moment, the outward sign of the oil being poured over his head is a signification of the inward grace God is bestowing on him by anointing him as king of his people Israel
In the New Testament reference to the use of oil in sacred ritual appears in the letter of St James where he is instructing the early church. St James says to his listeners: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14). Here St James refers to the healing ministry of the church as sacramental. There are three elements in this short passage about the healing ministry which give a clear image of the process of healing. First of all St James instructs: are any of you sick? Here the apostle is giving a clear statement that the church has a divine mandate from God to engage in a healing ministry to the sick. Then he continues: They should call for the elders of the church. Here the apostle is affirming that the people who are ordinarily commissioned to administer the healing are the bishops who are the elders of the church and who through the commission of their ordination are called to heal the sick. Priests of the church, who derive their priesthood from the fullness of priesthood contained in the ordination of a bishop, are commissioned by their ordinary to heal the sick and thus share in his (the bishop’s) priestly ministry. The sacramental element of this passage is introduced by the apostle when he commissions the elders to: “pray over the sick and anoint them with oil.” This is a clear statement that all healing is an act of God. The outward signs of God’s inward healing grace at work are the laying on of hands in prayer and the anointing with holy oil.
Throughout the ages of the church the use of oil as the outward sign of God’s inner workings was synonymous with the sacrament of the sick. In the reformed tradition the seven sacraments were reduced to two namely, baptism and Eucharist. With this derogation the use of oil in the healing ministry declined with that ministry being put to the margins of religious practice. This was an unfortunate legacy of the reformation which in some cases ‘threw out the baby with the bathwater.’
Thankfully, with the 2004 prayer book and a growth in theological understanding of the ministry of healing in the church, that same ministry is being restored to its proper place in the worship and life of the church. The use of oil in the healing ministry is extensive and the administration of that oil is seen more and more as sacramental when used with prayer and the laying on of hands. More and more diocesan bishops are celebrating the Chrism Eucharist in their diocesan cathedrals with their priests and lay ministers. At these celebrations three oils are blessed: the oil of Chrism for blessing at confirmations, ordinations and the consecration of bishops. The oil of Catechumens for the blessing of candidates for baptism and the oil of the sick for use in the ministry of healing. It is my prayer that it will become the norm as we lay hands on those who are sick asking God to send his healing Spirit on them we will also anoint them with the oil of the sick as an outward sign of God’s healing grace working within them.