Is it time for chrism masses already? Revisiting the cultures of chrism

The title above might send you to doublecheck the date of this post, but it’s not a mistake! We historically and pastorally associate the chrism mass, preparing and consecrating the oils (particularly chrism) to be used for initiation at the Easter Vigil and beyond, with Holy or Maundy Thursday, or in close proximity to that date. But what do geographically large dioceses with only one bishop do? This is a reality here in parts of Canada as it probably is in other places around the world.

The last couple of years I worked for one of those large dioceses which tried several different patterns, at first involving retired bishops, but more recently involving a series of mad dashes from one end of the diocese to another in order to have chrism masses accessible to the church in close proximity to Holy Week. Last week, however, it was a note on social media from another Canadian bishop who was presiding at a chrism mass in the north of Manitoba that prompted me to think of the inculturation – or simple practicalities – of timing, which in turn led to a reflection on the very stuff of chrism.

To review some of the historical textual evidence for the sake of tradition, (past practice and understanding as authorizing contemporary practice), we know that chrism (myron, the oil of gladness) is olive oil mixed with “perfume”, and blessed (or consecrated or confected) by the bishop in many different parts of the early church, along with the oil for the sick and the oil of catechumens. We also know that the patterns of “accompanying rites” to the water bath of initiation were varied in the early church, but a chrismation (before or after the baptism) was almost universal. From the confusing legacy of The Apostolic Tradition to Tertullian and other theologians writing about initiation to early conciliar councils, it is this anointing with chrism “taken from the very name of Christ” that remains theologically central. These early descriptions of chrismation at initiation are followed in the fourth and fifth centuries by a growing clarity about who sanctifies the chrism – the Holy Spirit in the Trinity – but through the hands of the bishop. So in the Latin-speaking West, for example, the Council of Toledo in 398 pushed back against some practices not deemed appropriate, reminding that “…none but the bishop shall henceforth bless chrism,” a practice to be done in sufficient time for deacons and subdeacons to carry the chrism home by Easter. In early Byzantine traditions, we read also in the fourth century (Macarius in Jerusalem) that it should fall to the chief bishop of a synod to bless the “oil of holiness” on Holy Thursday. Other places, such as Egypt, had a different timing of blessing, perhaps due to different baptismal dates.

With regard to the actual ‘cooking’ of the chrism, however, there is a difference geographically in our earliest known accounts. Between the eighth and tenth centuries it appears that in the East the ingredients were initially blessed and mixed by a bishop, followed by clergy doing the cooking and adding an often extensive list of oil, wine, resins, and aromatic essences throughout the first part of Holy Week in preparation for the consecration on Thursday. In the Latin-speaking West, our first full set of euchological texts and rubrics for a chrismal mass (the Old Gelasian Sacramentary, of Vaticanus reginensis 316 fame, circa 750) has the bishop adding the balsam at the consecration itself (“the blessing (confection) of the exorcized oil; at this point you mix the balsam with oil…”). Although the remaining prayers of that liturgy seem jumbled between the preliminary exorcisms and the eucharistic prayers over oil and over bread and wine, it still appears that the “perfuming” of the oil to make chrism was limited in scope and not something prepared ahead of time.

The contemporary practices of churches celebrating a chrism mass often include a number of other elements in addition to the blessing of the three traditional oils, particularly the renewal of ordination vows (or the vows of all the baptized by order), and even when moved off of Maundy Thursday, it is a liturgy overloaded with important elements. The preparation of the chrism is generally now done ahead of time following a wide assortment of ingredients and practices. I have had the joy of ‘cooking’ chrism with a group of seminarians for the past few years, using the “recipe” of Exodus 30.22–32, during which scripture, poetry, and prayers are recited at regular intervals. Other cathedral staffs follow a simple addition of a few condensed scents added to olive oil bought as a kit, or create a more elaborate mixture of balsam, frankincense, eucalyptus, myrrh and lavender which is further enhanced by adding floral scents such as lilac, gardenia and lily of the valley.

In conversations and written recipes from various regions of Canada, I have been increasingly interested in how the language of timing the liturgy and the composition of chrism takes on theologies of inculturation and christology, particularly in Anglican and Roman Catholic indigenous communities. Having a chrism mass in the fall means first, an opportunity to have the bishop be in the midst of the community. It is also a chance to bless the oil of the sick before the long winter sets in (and, in spite of official instructions that the oil of the sick is to be only simple olive oil, the local ‘balms’ associated with healing, such as bergamot, are often added). The chrism itself is made from olive oil (obviously imported), but mixed with local “smells of the forest,” especially the “Balsam Poplar” of North America, a fastgrowing wetland tree. On the West Coast, cedar and wild rosehips are common additions, elsewhere other wild flowers and plants are added. The result is both catholic (the commonality of olive oil in all times and places) and particular (the local plants known for their scents and healing properties). For a number of dioceses, the imported olive oil is also consciously chosen (fair trade Palestinian olive oil).

I cannot but think of the broadening of theologies around the incarnation in which humanity’s knowledge of its relationship to the whole of biological life impacts our understanding of “deep Incarnation.” “We have the understanding that what Christ took on was humanity and, because of the unity of humanity with the very stuff of creation, our flesh and Christ’s flesh are part of ‘the vast body of the cosmos’.” (Neils Henrik Gregersen) In the cooking of chrism, increasingly this both/and of true inculturation is taking place in the midst of people who find their identity in Christ and in their traditional lands in ways that profoundly express deep incarnation. I suspect there are examples of these practices around the world that are truly and deeply symbolic, not only pointing to divine reality, but participating in it – lessons to be learned from many people. (with thanks to Neils Henrik Gregersen, “Deep Incarnation: Why Evolutionary Continuity Matters in Christology”; The Rt. Revd William Cliff; Salal + Cedar; the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster; Seth Nater Arwo-Doqu for his 2013 CUA dissertation on the “Missa Chrismatis”; Nicholas Denysenko; the Coast Salish people; the Swampy Cree people of Manitoba; and the Dene people of Northern Saskatchewan)

3 comments

  1. Thank you for this scholarly treatment of a ubiquitius (but usually overlooked, at least by laity) worship element. It was a pleasure to read.

  2. Thank you for this. I am always delighted to read about chrism, particularly when I learn new things.

    Rabanus Maurus offered a different explanation for the timing, saying it was done two days before the Resurrection, the New Passover, because it was two days before the Passover that Jesus was anointed at Bethany. Mk 14:1 I am convinced that this is why the consecration of Chrism is joined to Triduum. The timing developed during a time of increased historicism, when people began going to Jerusalem, digging up the Cross, etc. The gospels, other than Luke, link it so closely to the Passion it had to be remembered with the Passion.

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