The Role of Oil in the Greek Orthodox Church

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Oil today plays an essential role in our lives, but mostly behind the scenes, whether it’s lubricating the gears in our cars, cooking our French Fries, used as fuel, or whatever else. Even though oil is prominent in today’s culture, it was even more important to our ancestors. Because the oil was essential to life, especially in the Mediterranean, the Church naturally takes it and uses it and transforms it from merely about this life, but about our life after death.

Olive Oil

In an Orthodox Life, the first time we encounter oil is at the entry into the Body of Christ and Church, the Baptism. This first oil used is called the Oil of Gladness, which is typically just some olive oil bought from the grocery store. This is the oil that the Godparent will hold in his hands. The Priest takes some of the oil in on his fingers and anoints the following areas of the person being baptized (depending on local tradition): forehead, chest, ears, mouth, nose, hands, knees, feet, and back. Next the sponsor will cover the person being baptized from head to toe in the remainder of the oil. This is done because we are preparing the new initiate to be ready for the battle that is their spiritual life. In Greco-Roman times, wrestlers would be covered in oil so that they could be slippery to the hands of their foe, and the Church is making the same statement, be slippery from the clutches of Satan.

Later in our modern baptism service, we find the Chrismation. This is a specific oil, unlike the oil of gladness, which is made by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (some other Archbishops and Patriarchs make their own, but much of the Orthodox World goes through the Ecumenical Patriarch). This oil is applied by the priest to all the same spots the oil of gladness was, saying “The Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” each time. This Chrism or Myrrh is a mystery (or sacrament) and unites us with the Holy Spirit and the Church.

Another form of oil we find on a regular basis in the Church is they Mystery of Holy Unction. This is oil that is blessed for healing of body and soul. Many people are confused that this is similar to the oil that many know as the Oil of Last Rights, which we don’t have in our Church, but it is for the healing of body and soul. Unction is a mystery and that is why there are some strong feelings to whether or not you should take unction home to anoint others. My opinion on that matter would be to either a) take those you want anointed to Church, b) tell your priest if you have a “shut-in” at your home or elsewhere, and c) if they cannot attend, find a day when they can, and let the priest know (most priests I know keep the unction for hospital visits and such).

Miraculous Myrrh is a fragrant oily substance that miraculously has been found to come forth from certain icons or holy relics. From my understanding, these oils can be used to anoint anyone.

Lastly, there is also a tradition of taking oil from lamps near icons or relics and blessing yourself with it as a way to ask for the saint’s intercessions to God for healing.

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.