When I perform infant baptisms, I always include the anointing with the oil of catechumens, partly because I see no need to skimp on symbols. I always explain that in the ancient world athletes and soldiers would rub oil on their bodies before going into competition or battle, so that their opponents could not get a firm grip on them, and that we anoint children about to be baptized as our way of praying that they would be able to slip from from the grasp of anything that might oppose their life as disciples of Jesus, into which they are entering through baptism.
This year, at the conclusion of the retreat we do with those participating in the RCIA, I anointed our catechumen who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil. While infants are anointed on the breast, adult catechumens are also anointed on their hands. I gave my usual spiel about the significance of the anointing, but after the rite I got to thinking about the significance of anointing hands and how the baptism of adults differs from that of infants.
Persons prior to the age of reason cannot form an intention to be baptized, but they also cannot form an intention not to be baptized. While they cannot cooperate with grace, they also cannot resist the workings of grace. Whatever resistance they may face might be thought of as solely “external,” whether we think of cosmic forces of evil or cultural indifference or even hostility to the Gospel. But adults are different. They have had a lifetime to internalize the world’s opposition, and may well be holding onto things that inhibit their open-handed reception of the Good News. There is a kind of letting-go that adults must do in order to return to that state of receptivity that is natural to children.
So it seems to me that the anointing of the hands of catechumens can be a powerful gesture if we think of it as our prayer that they would let slip from their hands all those things that they think they need to hold on to—reputation, possessions, control, security—but which in fact are obstacles to receiving God’s grace. We anoint their hands as a kind of spiritual WD-40, to help them loosen their grip so that they can embrace the gift of grace. This certainly corresponds to what I see happening in the lives of catechumens over the course of the months of the RCIA.