The Chrism Mass is one of the most impressive celebrations of the entire liturgical year. Before you take your kids, use this guide to get to know all about the traditions and rituals of holy oils.
by Jen Schlameuss-Perry
The Chrism Mass is when the bishop of each diocese comes together with all of the priests in the diocese to bless the holy oils that will be used throughout the coming year for sacramental celebrations. The oils of the Sick, Catechumens and Chrism are blessed and distributed for parish use. It’s an important event, and if you can swing getting there, totally worth it.
Oil is an ancient symbol, and has meaning for Christians rooted in both Jewish and Roman tradition. Often the oils are displayed in parish churches in what’s called an ambry. See if you can find yours in your parish church.
All of the sacramental oils have olive oil at their base. In fact, the oil of the sick and the oil of catechumens are just plain olive oil. The oil of chrism is olive oil that has an additive in it — chrism essence. And that stuff is potent!
I work for a cathedral parish, and we, with our Diocesan Office of Worship, prepare the oils and mix the chrism the week before the Mass. It only takes a little essence to scent a whole lot of oil! What makes the oils special is the blessing that they receive from the bishop, who has the authority to impart the Holy Spirit.
Oil of the Sick
This oil is used in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and for anointing those who are chronically or terminally ill, or those who are going for surgery or who are at the end of their lives. It includes prayers for strength and healing — physical and spiritual. In the Jewish and Roman civilizations, oil was used for everything from cooking, to light, to healing. Remember in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan cleaned the man’s wounds with wine and then dressed them with oil? They believed that oil had healing properties — it was like the Neosporin of the ancient world. The Romans believed that it gave strength to their muscles, and gladiators and athletes would rub oil on themselves before competing for this reason. Think of modern body builders, they oil up before competition because it helps define their muscles.
Oil of Catechumens
A “catechumen” is someone on a spiritual journey. The catechumenate is made up of unbaptized adults (specifically anyone who is over 7 years old and not baptized) who are in the process of becoming Catholic, and they have a special place in our community. They become catechumens during the Rite of Acceptance, and retain that title until the Rite of Election on the first Sunday of Lent when they become “Elect.” Throughout the process, guided by the norms and rituals of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, there are opportunities for the catechumens to be anointed with this oil to give them strength on their journey. This oil is also used in infant baptism as a sign that our babies are starting on their spiritual journey with Christ.
Oil of Chrism
This beautifully scented oil is also called the “oil of gladness.” It is the oil used to signify our sacred call by God to be ministers in our world. In baptism, when we are anointed on the head with this oil, the priest or deacon tells us that we are “priest, prophet and king.” We are anointed with it again in confirmation, and priests are anointed with it at ordination.
The oil recalls our Jewish heritage. When God chose a person for a special role in the community — a priest in the Temple, a prophet who would speak on behalf of God, or a king of Israel — they would be anointed with oil as a sign of their having been chosen.
We are priests in the sense that we make sacrifices for one another and intercede for one another in prayer, we’re prophets because we, too, are called to speak God’s words to one another, and we’re kings because Jesus promised us that we would inherit everything that belongs to him in heaven. We’re reminded with this oil that God will give us the strength and healing to do anything that God calls us to do. In the ancient church, newly baptized adults would be anointed from head to toe and wear their baptismal garment for weeks. They talked about “putting on the stench of Christ.” And chrism has one powerful (and beautiful) odor!
Highlights of The Chrism Mass
If you wanted to look at the readings for this Mass on the USCCB website, you’ll find them under Holy Thursday. Holy Thursday was the traditional day to celebrate this Mass because, as with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it is a Mass where priests re-consecrate themselves to the service of Christ and their obedience to their bishop. It’s quite an impressive procession with so many priests. Some dioceses celebrate the chrism Mass on another day during Holy Week since Holy Thursday is so busy, but once Holy Thursday evening hits, the window is over. The Triduum doesn’t have anything extra in it.
The bishop is the presider at this Mass, which takes place in the cathedral, where the bishop’s chair (cathedra) is placed. It’s a sign of his Christ-given authority, and his role as the shepherd of the diocese. His homily, which is aimed mostly at the priests since this is their special celebration, is one of the highlights of the Mass. It’s the bishop’s opportunity to speak to all of his priests at once and to inspire them to continue their service in the sacraments and other important parish work.
The readings include the selection from the Prophet Isaiah that Jesus chose to read in the synagogue. It speaks of the anointed one who brings good news to the brokenhearted. It also speaks of jubilee traditions of setting captives free, restoring the sick to health, and all kinds of other great news. It also mentions the “oil of gladness.”
The second reading is from the Book of Revelation, and focuses very much on priesthood. The Gospel is the story of Jesus reading that piece from Isaiah that we just talked about. He is the fulfillment of that promise that God spoke through Isaiah. The priesthood of the Church is the continuation of that promise, as it is the priests who offer us the body and blood of Christ in Eucharist.
There is a procession with the oils to the altar where they will be blessed. The bishop prays over each of the oils, and breathes the Holy Spirit onto the oil of chrism (one of the titles for the Holy Spirit in the Jewish Scriptures is “ruah” which means, “breath of God”). After the celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass is ended, the oils distributed to the priests to take to their parishes, and sometimes there’s a reception for all the faithful.
What to do with the kids?
If your kids are little but can handle sitting still, it might be worth trekking out to this Mass. There’s a good deal of action, so it might keep their interest. If you have older kids, definitely go. It’s about an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half, not much longer than a regular Mass. A nice incentive, if your diocese offers this as mine does, would be the reception after the Mass. There are usually cookies.
If you can’t go, make a point of seeing the oils in your church the next time you go. See if you can locate an ambry. If you find it, you’ll probably need this code: OI=Oil of the Sick, OS=Oil of Catechumens, and SC=Sacred Chrism. If you can’t find it, ask your priest or deacon to show them to you. Ask if you can smell the chrism.
Many parishes have a presentation of the oils at their Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It offers a small explanation for the use of each oil, but you’ll be ahead of the game if you read this article!
If you went to the Chrism Mass:
- Was this the first time you were in your diocesan cathedral?
- What was your impression of it? Was this the first time your saw your bishop in person? What was that like?
- Did you see your parish priests there?
- What were some items you saw in the cathedral that made an impression on you?
- What about the Mass was impressive to you?
If you didn’t go to the Chrism Mass (or even if you did):
- At home, have an olive oil tasting (not the blessed kind).
- Let the kids rub a drop into their hands. What does the oil do for your skin? How does it feel?
- Talk about how you use oil for in your home.
- The words “Messiah” and “Christ” both mean “anointed.” What does our being anointed in baptism have in common with Jesus’ being the Anointed One?
- Have you ever been anointed with one of the sacred oils that you remember? What was it for? What did it mean for you?