Communions & Confirmations

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Understanding chrism, Confirmation’s holy oil

Oil is an important element of certain religious ceremonies, including sacraments within the Christian church. Individuals get their first experience with oil as infants when they are anointed during Baptism. Oil also is essential in the Catholic sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders.

The oil used in these ceremonies is called "chrism." Chrism is from the Greek word meaning, "anointing." The oil also may be referred to as myrrh or consecrated oil. Chrism is typically made from olive oil and is scented with herbs, essential oils and balsam. Chrism is typically consecrated by a bishop in the presence of a college of priests, called the presbyterium. This takes place at the Mass of the Chrism, on the morning of Holy Thursday. Other oils, including the oil of catechumens and oil of the sick, also are blessed at this particular Mass.

The term "Christian" comes from the sacred chrism.  Anointing a person with chrism signifies the full diffusion of grace. During the Sacrament of Confirmation, the bishop stretches his hands over the person to be confirmed and invokes the Holy Spirit upon him or her. Next, he will use the sacred chrism to anoint the forehead. The anointing is made on the forehead, where signs of fear and shame typically appear, so that the confirmand understands that he or she should not blush at being professed a Christian.

The use of chrism is most notably detailed by Cyril of Jerusalem in historic documents. He explained how ointment or oil was "symbolically applied to the forehead, and the other organs of sense." Cyril states that the "ointment is the seal of the covenants" of baptism and God's promises to the Christian who is anointed.
In some areas, the job of preparing the chrism falls on the masters of ceremonies of the bishop's office. The oil is carefully measured and mixed with the desired blends of fragrances before it will be consecrated during Holy Week. No two chrism recipes are alike, and it helps make sacred chrism personalized to each particular parish. Chrism is made new each year, and whatever oil is leftover from the year before is buried or burned.
Holy oils are typically stored in vessels known as "chrismaria," which are kept in an ambry. Priests will get a small oil stock to use when anointing confirmands to make handling the oil easier.

Chrism plays a large role in many liturgical services of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity.