Mary Magdalene anointing the Feet of Jesus; surrounded by gray and brown grisailles of other scenes from the life of the “composite Magdalene”, by Frans Francken II (1581-1642); 1637; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France
A Lenten Reflection for Maundy Thursday from Holy Cross Publications
PRAYER BEFORE MEDITATION.
My God, I firmly believe that Thou art here present. I acknowledge that on account of my many sins I am utterly unworthy to appear before Thy sacred countenance. Yet, confiding in Thy infinite goodness and mercy, I venture to address Thee, to call upon Thy holy name, and meditate upon Thy commandments, in order that I may acquire a better knowledge of Thy holy will, and accomplish it with more fidelity. Wherefore enlighten my understanding that I may perceive what I ought to do or leave undone for the promotion of Thy glory and my own salvation; at the same time excite my will, that I may repent with my whole heart of my past sins, and resolve for the future to do all that Thou requirest of me. Grant me above all to know Jesus, my divine Teacher and Guide, more clearly, that I may love Him more dearly, and consequently labor, struggle and suffer with greater generosity and self-sacrifice in imitation of His example. Holy Mary, Mother of God and my Mother, show Jesus to me now, and let me study thy divine Son to the salvation of my soul. Holy Guardian Angel, keep far from me all distracting thoughts; my patron saint, come to my assistance. Amen.
The Blessing of the Holy Oils.
The second Mass which used, formerly, to be said on Maundy Thursday, was that of the Blessing of the Holy Oils. This holy function, which takes place but once each year, requires a Bishop as the consecrator. For now many centuries, this great ceremony is celebrated at the single Mass, which is said, on this day, in commemoration of our Lord’s Supper. As this Blessing only takes place in Cathedral Churches, we will not enter into each detail; and yet we would not deprive our readers of what they ought to know with regard to the Holy Oils. Faith teaches us, that, as we are regenerated by water, so are we confirmed and fortified by oil; and that Oil is one of the chief elements chosen by the Divine Author of the Sacraments, whereby to signify and produce grace in our souls.
The reason of the Church’s selecting Maundy Thursday for the Blessing of the Holy Oils, was that they would be so much needed for the Baptism of the neophytes on Easter Eve. It behoves the Faithful to understand the mystery of those sacred elements. We will, therefore, briefly explain it to them, in order that we may excite their hearts to gratitude to our Blessed Lord, who has made material things the instruments of grace, and, by his Blood, has given them the sacramental power which resides within them.
The first of the Holy Oils, that is, the first that is blessed by the Bishop, is the one called the Oil of the Sick. It is the matter of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. It takes away, from the dying Christian, the remnants of sin; it strengthens him in his last combat; and, by the supernatural power it possesses, sometimes restores to him the health of the body. Formerly, it used to be blessed on any day of the year, as often as required: but, later on, its Blessing was fixed for this day, that thus the three Oils might be blessed all together. The Faithful should assist with much devotion, at this ceremony; for the element that is thus sanctified, is one day to anoint and purify their bodies, sinking under sickness. Let them, as they see it being blessed, think upon their last hour, and praise the infinite goodness of their Saviour, whose blood streams so plentifully through “this precious fluid.”
The noblest of the three Oils is the Chrism, and its consecration is more solemn, and fuller of mystery, than those of the other two. It is by the chrism that the Holy Ghost imprints his indelible seal on the Christian, that has already been made a member of Christ by Baptism. The Water gives us our spiritual birth; the Chrism gives us strength; and, until such time as we have received its holy anointing, we have not as yet the perfect character of a Christian. Anointed with this holy Oil, the Faithful has a visible sign given him of his being a member of the Man-God, whose name of Christ signifies the unction he has received both as King and Pontiff. This consecration of a Christian by Chrism is so much in accordance with the spirit of our holy Religion, that, immediately after Baptism, the child receives upon its head an anointing, (though it is not a sacramental one,) of this Oil, to show that he is already a sharer of the kingly character of Jesus Christ.
In order to express, by an outward sign, the sacredness of Chrism, an Apostolic tradition requires the Bishop to mix Balm with it. This Balm represents what the Apostle calls the good odour of Christ, of whom it is written: We will run after Thee, to the odour of Thy ointments. The scarcity and high price of other perfumes has obliged the Latin Church to be content with Balm alone in the mixture of holy Chrism: but in the Eastern Church, where the climate is more favourable than ours, three and thirty species of precious perfumes are put into the Oil, and it thus becomes an ointment of exquisite fragrance.
The holy Chrism, besides its sacramental use in Confirmation, and its being put upon the head of the newly baptised, is also used by the Church in the consecration of her Bishops, in the consecration of Chalices and Altars, in the blessing of Bells, and in the Dedication of a Church, in which last most imposing ceremony, the Bishop pours out the Chrism on the twelve crosses, which are to attest to all succeeding ages, the glory of God’s House.
The third of the holy Oils is that which is called the Oil of Catechumens. Though it be not the matter of any Sacrament, it is, nevertheless, an Apostolic institution. Its blessing is less solemn than that of the Chrism, but more so than that of the Oil of the Sick. The Oil of Catechumens is used in the ceremonies of Baptism, for the anointing the breast and shoulders. It is also used for the anointing a Priest’s hands in Ordination, and for the coronation of a King or Queen.
These few words of explanation will give the Faithful some idea of the importance of the Blessing of the holy Oils. By this threefold Blessing, says St. Fortunatus, (in the beautiful Hymn, which is used during the ceremony,) the Bishop acquits the debt he owes, and which none but he can pay.
The holy Church seldom employs such pomp as she does on this occasion. Twelve Priests, seven Deacons, and seven Subdeacons, are present. The Roman Pontifical tells us, that the twelve Priests assist as witnesses and co-operators of the holy Chrism. The Mass commences, and goes on as far as the Prayer of the Canon, which immediately precedes the Pater noster. The Bishop then leaves the Altar, and goes to the place prepared for the Blessing. The first phial of Oil that is brought to him, is that which is intended for the sick. He prefaces the blessing, by pronouncing the words of exorcism over this oil, in order to drive from it the influence of the wicked spirits, who, out of hatred for man, are ever seeking to infest the creatures given to us for our use. This done, he blesses it in these words:
We beseech thee, O Lord, send forth from heaven Thy Holy Spirit the Paraclete upon this rich juice of the olive, which Thou hast graciously produced from the green wood, for the solace of both mind and body. By Thy holy blessing, may all they that are anointed with this ointment of heavenly virtue, receive help to mind and body; may it remove from them all pains, all infirmities, and all sickness of mind and body, for it was with oil that Thou didst anoint Thy Priests, Kings, Prophets, and Martyrs. May this, being blessed by Thee, O Lord, become unto us an ointment of perfection, and abide within our whole being. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the seven Subdeacons then carries the phial back, and the Bishop returns to the Altar, and continues the Mass. As soon as he has given Holy Communion to the Clergy, he returns to the place prepared for the blessing of the Oils. The twelve Priests, the seven Deacons, and the seven Subdeacons, repair to the place where the other two phials have been put. One contains the oil, which is to become the Chrism of salvation; the other, the oil which is to be sanctified as the oil of Catechumens. The procession is soon seen returning towards the Pontiff. The two phials are carried by two Deacons; a Subdeacon carries the vase of Balm. The Bishop begins by blessing the Balm: he calls it “the fragrant tear of dry bark,—the oozing of a favoured branch, that gives us the priestly unction.” Before proceeding to bless the oil of the Chrism, he thrice breathes upon it, in the form of a cross. The twelve Priests do the same. The Gospel tells us that our Blessed Saviour used this same ceremony over his Apostles. It signifies the power of the Holy Ghost, and expresses His name, which is The Spirit. This Holy Spirit is about to make this oil become an instrument of His Divine power. The Bishop first prepares it for the heavenly dignity, by exorcising it. He then celebrates the praises of the Chrism, by this magnificent Preface, which has been handed down to us from the earliest ages of our faith.
It is truly meet and just, right and available to salvation, that we should always, and in all places, give thanks to Thee, O Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God: who, in the beginning, among the rest of Thy bounteous gifts, didst command the earth to yield fruit-bearing trees, among which should be the olive, which produces this most rich liquor, and whose fruit was to serve for the making holy Chrism. Hence it was, that David, foreknowing, by a prophetic spirit, the Sacraments of Thy grace, sang that our faces were to be made glad with oil: and when the sins of the world were expiated of old, by the deluge, a dove announced that peace was restored to the earth, by bearing an olive branch, the type of the gift to come, which has been manifested in these latter ages; for after the waters of Baptism have washed away the sins of men, this anointing of oil gave us joy and calm. Hence, too, Thou didst command Thy servant Moses to ordain his brother Aaron priest, by pouring oil upon him, after he had been cleansed with water. A greater honour still was, that when Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, bade John baptise Him in the waters of the Jordan, Thou didst send upon Him the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove; that thus by a voice that bore testimony, Thou mightest designate Thine Only Begotten Son, in whom Thou wast well pleased, and mightest prove, beyond all doubt, that this was the fulfilment of what the Prophet David had foretold, when he sang, that he was to be anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows. “We, therefore, beseech Thee, Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God, through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, that Thou vouchsafe to sanctify, by thy blessing, this thy creature oil, and infuse into it the virtue of the Holy Ghost, through the co-operating power of Christ, Thy Son, from Whose name it hath borrowed its own of Chrism, and wherewith Thou didst anoint the Priests, Kings, Prophets, and Martyrs. Raise this Chrism into a Sacrament of perfect salvation and life, to them that are to be renewed by the spiritual laver of Baptism. That thus, the corruption of their first birth being absorbed by the infusion of this holy anointing, they may become a holy temple, redolent with the fragrance of the innocence of holy living. According to what Thou hast appointed in this mystery, bestow upon them the honour of kings, priests, and prophets, by vesting them in the robe of incorruption. May this oil be to them, that are born again from water and the Holy Ghost, a Chrism of salvation, making them partakers of life everlasting, and co-heirs of heavenly glory.
The Bishop then takes the Balm; and having mixed it, on a paten, with a little oil, he pours it into the Phial. The consecration of the Chrism thus completed, he salutes it with these words: Hail, O Holy Chrism! This he does with the intention of honouring the Holy Ghost, Who is to work by this sacramental oil. The same is done by each of the twelve Priests.
The Bishop then proceeds to bless the Oil of Catechumens. After having breathed upon it, and pronounced the exorcism, (as before, in the blessing of the holy Chrism,) he says this Prayer:
O God, the rewarder of every spiritual increase and growth! Who strengthenest the beginnings of weakly souls by the power of the Holy Ghost: we beseech Thee, O Lord, that Thou vouchsafe to pour out Thy blessing upon this oil, and grant to them, that come to the laver of holy regeneration, the cleansing of soul and body, by the anointing they receive from this Thy creature; that so, if there should be any stains fixed upon them by their spiritual enemies, they may be effaced by the touch of this holy oil. May the wicked spirits find no room there; may the powers, that have been put to flight, have no further sway; may there be no lurking place left to insidious evil ones. May Thy servants that come to the faith, and are to be cleansed by the operation of Thy Holy Spirit, find in this anointing a preparation for that salvation, which they are to receive in the Sacrament of Baptism, by the Birth of a heavenly regeneration. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, Who is to come to judge the living, and the dead, and the world by fire. Amen.
The Bishop then salutes the Oil, on which he has conferred these wonderful prerogatives, saying: Hail, O holy Oil! The same act of reverence is repeated by each of the Priests. One of the deacons takes the Chrism, an other the Oil of Catechumens, and a procession is again formed for taking them to the place prepared for them. They are covered with veils of silk;—the holy Chrism, with white: the Oil of Catechumens, with purple.
We will conclude our outline of this imposing ceremony, by giving our readers the beautiful Hymn, composed in the 6th century, by St. Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers. The Church has adopted it for the two processions, which we have already described.
O Redeemer of mankind!
receive the hymn of them
that sing Thy praise.
Repeat : O Redeemer.
Judge of the dead! Thou
only hope of men! hear the
prayers of them that carry the
emblem of the gift of peace.
A tree made fruitful by the
fostering sun, produced this
oil that is now to be blessed,
which we, the adorers of His
Holy Name, bring to the Saviour
of the world.
The mitred Pontiff, too,
standing humbly before the
altar, is about to pay his
debt, by consecrating the Chrism.
O King of the everlasting
kingdom! deign to consecrate
this oil, this instrument of
life, that breaks the demon’s power.
Men and women are renovated
by the unction of the
Chrism; and their glorious
dignity, that had been wounded,
is healed by the same.
When the soul is washed
in the sacred font, her crimes
are put to flight: and holiest
graces come upon them, whose
brow is anointed with this oil.
O thou the Son of the
Eternal Father, and Son of the Virgin-Mother! grant
light and life to us whom
Thou hast made to share in
Thine own anointing.
May this day be to us an
everlasting feast. May it be
grow old with time.
PRAYER AFTER MEDITATION.
My God, I give Thee heartfelt thanks for all the graces and all the light Thou hast conferred on me during this meditation. Pardon me all the negligence and the distractions of which I have been guilty, and give me strength to carry out the resolutions that I have made. Fortify me, that from henceforth I may diligently practise this virtue . . . avoid this fault . . . perform this action . . . to Thy honor. Help me to do this, sweet Virgin Mary; and if I ever forget my good resolutions, I entreat my Angel Guardian to recall them to my memory. Amen.