Mixture of olive oil and balsam blessed by a bishop; used in certain sacraments and in certain ecclesiastical functions
Chrism, a mixture of oil of olives and balsam, blessed by a bishop in a special manner and used in the administration of certain sacraments and in the performance of certain ecclesiastical functions. That chrism may serve as valid matter for the Sacrament of Confirmation it must consist of pure oil of olives, and it must be blessed by a bishop, or at least by a priest delegated by the Holy See. These two conditions are certainly necessary for validity; moreover it is probable that there should be an admixture of balsam, and that the blessing of the chrism should be special, in the sense that it ought to be different from that which is given to the oil of the sick or the oil of catechumens. (Cf. Lehmkuhl, Cas. Cons. II, n. 102.) If either of the last two conditions is wanting the sacrament will be doubtfully valid. To deal with the subject in a sufficiently exhaustive manner, it will be enough to touch upon (I) the origin and antiquity of chrism; (2) its constituent nature; (3) its blessing; and (4) its use and symbolical significance.
(I) Origin.—In its primitive meaning the word chrism, like the Greek chrisma, was used to designate any and every substance that served the purpose of smearing or anointing, such as the various kinds of oils, unguents, and pigments. This was its ordinary signification in profane literature, and even in the early patristic writings. Gradually however, in the writings of the Fathers at all events, the term came to be restricted to that special kind of oil that was used in religious ceremonies and functions, especially in the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Thus Origen refers to the visible chrism in which we have all been baptized: St. Ambrose venerates in the chrism the oil of grace which makes kings and priests; and St. Cyril of Jerusalem celebrates the praises of the mystic chrism (cf. Dict. de theol. cath., s.v. Chreme, where many references are given to patristic passages in which the word occurs). The early councils of the Church have also references to chrism as something set apart for sacred purposes and making for the sanctification of men. Thus the Council of Constantinople held in 381 (Can. vii) and the Council of Toledo, 398 (Can. x). Regarding the institution of chrism, or its introduction into the sacramental and ceremonial system of the Church, some theologians like St. Thomas (Sum., III, Q. lxxii, a. 4) and Suarez (De Conf., D. xxxiii) hold that it was instituted immediately by Christ, while others contend that it is altogether of ecclesiastical origin. Eugene IV, in his famous “Instruction for the Armenians” (Bull “Exultate Deo”, apud Denzinger, “Enchiridion”, p. 160), asserts that chrism is the matter of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and, indeed, this opinion is so certain that it may not be denied without incurring some note of theological censure. (Cf. Catechism of the Council of Trent, Pt. II, c. q. 7.) All that the Council of Trent has defined in this connection is that they who attribute a certain spiritual and salutary efficacy to holy chrism do not in any way derogate from the respect and reverence due to t he Holy Ghost (Sess. VII, c. iv).
Nature.—Two elements enter into the constitution of legitimate chrism, viz. olive-oil and balsam. The former is indeed the preponderating, as well as the principal, ingredient, but the latter must be added in greater or lesser quantity, if not for reasons of validity, at all events in obedience to a grave ecclesiastical precept. Frequent reference is made in the Old Testament to the use of oil in religious ceremonies. It was employed in the coronation of kings, in the consecration of the high priest and in the ordination of the Levites, and indeed, it figured very prominently in the Mosaic ordinances generally, as can be abundantly gathered from Exodus (xxx, 22 sqq.), Leviticus (viii), and Deuteronomy (xxviii, 40). Such being the prevailing usage of the Old Testament in adopting olive-oil for religious ceremonies, it is no cause for wonder that it also came to receive under the New Dispensation a certain religious recognition and approval. The second element that enters into the constitution of genuine chrism is balsam. This is an aromatic, resinous substance that is extracted from the wood of certain trees or plants, especially those belonging to the terebinthine group or family. In the manufacture of this sweet-smelling unguent the early Greek Christians were wont to employ as many as forty different perfumed spices or essences (Goar, Euchologion, p. 627). In the beginning of the Christian Era balsam was obtained from Judea (opobalsam) and from Arabia Felix (balm of Mecca), but in modern times it is also procured, and in superior quality, from the West Indies. What is required for chrism should of course be such as is sanctioned by the usage of the Church. The first mention of balsam as an ingredient in the composition of chrism seems to be found in the “Gregorian Sacramentary”, a work belonging to the sixth century. (Cf. Perrone, Pril. rheol., III, 135.) Now, however, according to existing legislation, the addition of balsam is requisite for lawful chrism, but whether it is necessary for the validity of the sacrament, assuming that chrism is the matter of confirmation, this is a matter about which theologians do not agree. (Cf. Bellarmine, De Conf., ix.) The modern view appears to be that it is not so required. But owing to the uncertainty mere olive-oil alone would be doubtful matter and could not, therefore, be employed apart from very grave necessity.
Blessing.—For proper and legitimate chrism the blessing by a bishop is necessary, and, probably too, such a blessing as is peculiar to it alone. That the bishop is the ordinary minister of this blessing is certain. So much is amply recognized in all the writings of the early centuries, by the early councils (cf. Const. Apos., VII, 42; the Second Council of Carthage of 390, and Third Council of Braga, 572), and by all modern theologians (cf. Frassen, xi, 440). But whether a priest may be the extraordinary minister of this blessing, and, if so, in what circumstances, this is a question that is more or less freely discussed. It seems agreed that the pope may delegate a priest for this purpose, but it is not so clear that bishops can bestow the same delegated authority ex jure ordinario. They exercised, it seems, this prerogative in former times in the East, but the power of delegating priests to bless chrism is now strictly reserved to the Holy See in the Western Church. (Cf. Perrone, Prael. Theol., III, 135.) The rites employed in consecrating the sacred chrism go to show that it is a ceremony of the highest importance. Formerly it could be blessed on any day of the year according as necessity arose. Now, however, it must be blessed during the solemn high Mass of Holy Thursday. (Cf. Deer. S. R. C., ed. Gardellini, n. 2475.) For the full solemn ceremonial the consecrating prelate should be assisted by twelve priests, seven deacons, and seven subdeacons. The oil and balsam, being prepared in the sacristy beforehand, are carried in solemn procession to the sanctuary after the Communion, and placed on a table. Then the balsam, held on a silver salver, is blessed, and similarly the olive-oil, which is reserved in a silver jar. After this the balsam is mixed with the oil. Then, the chrism, being perfected with a final prayer, receives the homage of all the sacred ministers present, making each a triple genuflection towards it, and each time saying the words, Ave sanctum chrism. After the ceremony it is taken back to the sacristy, and distributed among the priests who take it away in silver vessels commonly called oil-stocks, what remains being securely and reverently guarded under lock and key. (Cf. Catalani, Corn. in Rom. Pont., I, 120; Bernard, be Pontifical, II, 470-495.)
Use and Significance.—Chrism is used in the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, in the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, altars, and altar-stones, and in the solemn blessing of bells and baptismal water. The head of the newly-baptized is anointed with chrism, the forehead of the person confirmed, the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration, and the hands of a priest at his ordination. So are the walls of churches, which are solemnly consecrated, anointed with the same holy oil, and the parts of the sacred vessels used in the Mass which come in contact with the Sacred Species, as the paten and chalice. If it be asked why chrism has been thus introduced into the functions of the church liturgy, a reason is found in its special fitness for this purpose by reason of its symbolical significance. For olive-oil, being of its own nature rich, diffusive, and abiding, is fitted to represent the copious outpouring of sacramental grace, while balsam, which gives forth most agreeable and fragrant odors, typifies the innate sweetness of Christian virtue. Oil also gives strength and suppleness to the limbs, while balsam preserves from corruption. Thus anointing with chrism aptly signifies that fulness of grace and spiritual strength by which we are enabled to resist the contagion of sin and produce the sweet flowers of virtue. “For we are the good odor of Christ unto God” (II Cor., ii, 15).