Olive oil in various forms graces virtually every kitchen in America. While it was not the case even 30 years ago, we have developed a cultural love for olive oil and many different kinds of oil as well. Not only do we use oil in preparing and enhancing our food, we use it as a body lotion, and even as fuel for cooking or igniting a fire.
Of course, this is not new. The ancient world used oil – and in the Middle East almost exclusively olive oil – for all of these functions and more.
In the Church, olive oil is used in the dispensation of several of the Sacraments. We are anointed with olive oil twice at Baptism and again at Confirmation. We are anointed with olive oil in the Sacrament of the Sick. Priests are anointed with olive oil on their hands at ordination and bishops are anointed on their heads. Each of these oils – the Oil of Catechumens, Sacred Chrism and Oil of the Sick – includes different distinctive spices offering very different aromas. All of the oil used in a diocese in a particular year, are blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week.
This Sunday we hear a parable by Jesus about 10 virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. Not knowing when he would come, five of them used their oil sparingly and brought more with them. The other five squandered what they had and ran short, so they were unprepared for the bridegroom’s arrival. As the first five were hesitant to share their spare oils, the foolish ones had to go off to find oil and missed the arrival of the bridegroom. When they tried to enter the banquet they were denied entrance, while the first five entered with the bridegroom.
It would seem that there are very clear sacramental allusions in this parable. The use of oil as a sacramental sign began even during the ministry of Jesus. He sent the 72 ahead of him with the instructions to anoint the sick. In his Epistle, St. James instructed the Church to anoint the sick with oil to bring them healing and the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Oil – a simple and ubiquitous substance – is transformed from its mundane use to a sacred use through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in and through the bishop, the successor to the apostles. This oil is used, not foolishly, but with the clear and specific intention and purpose of transforming the one being anointed.
In Baptism, we are transformed into a child of God and made ready to participate fully in the Paschal Mystery and the life of the Church. In Confirmation we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and infused with the Gifts of the Spirit to make us a new creation in Christ. In priesthood ordination one who is already ordained as a deacon is now set aside to become alter Christos, standing before the assembly as the minster of the Sacraments. A priest to be ordained a bishop is transformed into a successor of the apostles, sharing in the fullness of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In the anointing of the sick we are healed of our weakness, that weakness that comes from sin, and brought healing, strength and consolation. At the end of our lives, we are prepared to share in the life we are gifted with at Baptism.
We have been given our share of the oil and are called to use that oil wisely. The bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will demand of us an accounting of the oil that he has given to us. We can either squander that oil by ignoring the life of faith, therefore wasting the oil on life in the world, or we can use that oil to enlighten our lives and the lives of those around us by living a life of faith.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.