The Anointing Oil

On May 7th 2023, England and the Commonwealth will have a new monarch, King Charles III, seventy years after our last coronation. We’ll all get goosebumps as the choral wall of sound of Handel’s glorious anthem Zadok The Priest hits us, but what exactly does it all mean? The title of the event being a Coronation is a bit of a misnomer. We will see the king being crowned, but actually that is a very small part of the ceremony. The most important part is the anointing with oil, and in this article I shall talk a little about the symbolism and action of anointing and about the anointing oil that has been made for this most unique of sacred ceremonies.

When I was growing up, English people spoke of their memories of the late Queen’s coronation with such excitement, because for most families it was their first opportunity to see color TV. As oil enthusiasts, it’s only natural that our gaze would fall on the anointing oil, the Chrism that sets him apart in his holy role as chosen by God. Interestingly, the actual anointing was the only part of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that was not televised.

The camera was turned away, and the Palace has already announced the same will happen in the coronation of Charles III.

But why? What makes  it such a private and sacred occurrence?

To understand the background to the anointing, we will need to talk about theology, in particular Christian and Hebraic teachings. 

The Anointing Oil of The Church of England

The consecration of a British monarch is an occasion full of pomp and circumstance, but at its core,  it is a religious rite of The Church of England.

What is The Church of England

The Church of England was established in 1532 as a breakaway faction from the Catholic Church, as designated by Henry VIII when the Pope decided to put his foot down about his feelings around Henry demanding he should get divorced from Catherine of Aragon.

The Church of England, or Anglican Church, is the primary state church in England, where the concepts of church and state are linked. There are fundamental differences between catholicism and anglicn beliefs in many areas, which are outside the boundaries of this article, but one area they differ is in their use of oils.

From medieval times, Catholicism has used three important oils in their daily rites. The oil of catechumens, or oil of exorcism, the oil of Chrism used for baptisms and for confirmation into the faith and the oils of the sick, used for healing.

Protestant reformationists had very fixed feelings about the places of oils in religious service. In short, they deemed them catholic nonsense and did away with them.  Oils of exorcism,  the oil of Chrism used for confirmation or baptismal services  and the oil for the sick were abolished. The use of oil was only retained for the ordination of priests and for the anointing of our monarch, this oil used is known as The Oil of Chrism.

Oil being used in the coronation is most unusual and the coronation service invokes an Old Testament memory as credence for the new king’s backing by God.

The Holy Anointing Oil

The Bible speaks much about oil. The first time we hear of it is Exodus 3:30 where God speaks to Moses and asks him to create a Holy anointing oil with which to anoint Aaron and his brothers and to set them aside as priests.

This is important…anointing is an act that sets something or someone aside as holy.

But the symbolism goes much deeper.

In the book of Samuel, we hear how Saul, Israel's king had died and the Prophet Samuel was bereft after a complicated relationship with a king whom he had clashed with. God spoke to him and told him to go to Bethlehem to the house of a man called Jesse, to engage with one of his sons, David and to anoint him as the new king of Israel.

So as David stood there among his brothers, Samel took the flask of olive oil he had brought and anointed David with oil. And the spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on

1 Samual 16: 13

And again, in 1 Kings 19:16

We how God visits Elijah and tells him

Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.

In Exodus, God tells him to build the tabernacle and to anoint the objects for the altar with the anointing oil.

So we can see that priests are anointed with oil, as are their ritual buildings and implements, prophets are anointed and so are kings.

But why?

When Samuel poured oil over David, he marked him as being set aside. It represented divine authority and sanctification to those who saw it. Not only did it designated them as being set apart from some divine reason, but that David had been specifically chosen by god, had been purposed by him and that part of the transactional covenant associated with the anointing would be that God would guide and support him.

Oil itself is deepend to carry some of the nature of God with it. It symbolizes the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, this is explained explicitly in Acts 10:38.

And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazarath with the Holy spirit and then with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing those who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

The power of the anointing is God’s endorsement to do Holy work and the bestowal of his Holy Spirit as a means of delivering to his people.

Consider how the oil clings to the king. How it seems to lubricate things to make them move more easily. How it makes things glide gracefully and how we associate prayers with asking for God's grace.

Today, the anointing is little more than small dabs of oil, but historically the idea was to saturate the chosen one in the oil of God's grace.

In Psalm 133.2 we read: It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down the beard of Aaron, running down the edge of his garments.

Oil was poured from the horn over the head and trickled all the way down him, engulfing and smearing him with God's grace.

To Smear or Rub…

Oddly, hidden, this is potentially the most profound part of anointing to a Christian, in particular.

The word Messiah means “painted one”, or “smeared one”. It has a Greek translation. “Christos” means smeared one.

Consider then, the context that at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and the establishment of the early church, Greece was a pagan community.

So when His story was preached by converted Jews, of course they used this title Christos, The smeared one, but the nuances held little relevance to Gentiles - they wouldn't really have understood the reference at all and as such Christos and The Christ simply became known as “Christ.” (Barnett, 1999)

So, when Christ died, it was seen that a substantive change had taken place. That previously, God bestowed his Holy Spirit through the oil, but now, in the New Testament way of thinking…it was as if Christ's followers were always smeared with oil..they were Christian …smeared, after all….

1 John 2:20 "But ye have an unction from the Holy one" so there fore it abides within you”

New Testament Christian theology describes how the Holy Spirit did not previously reside in anyone until Christ offered his final sacrifice. Prior, it would occasionally be visited upon priests and kings on occasions of holy ordinance.

The New King’s Anointing Oil

Last month the Palace released a video of the oil being consecrated in Jerusalem. This broke with tradition of over 1000 years.

Prior to this, the oil had always been blessed by a bishop just before the service.

The plan for this beautiful change was the desire of The Archbishop of Canterbury and is particularly poignant when it comes to the olive oil.

Spiritual Facets of Olive Oil

Olive oil is cited as the base oil for consecration right through the Old Testament. Of course, we think of its wonderful medicinal properties, not least how good it is for wound healing and for the heart. We should also consider that in antiquity it was the main ingredient in lamp oil, ringing light and warmth. The symbolism of using olive oil is many-layered, imbuing the qualities of nourishment, healing, light and warmth…

Olive oil carries significant financial value too, so this pouring of oil over someone no doubt also conveyed a message not only of status but also the backing of merchants and banks. It literally reeks of affluence.

Church of Mary Magdalene

The oil consecrated for the King has been pressed from fruits from  two groves on the Mount of Olives. One of these roves is close to the one at the church of Mary Magdalene, the burial place of Prince Philip's mother, Princess Alice of Greece. Close by is also her aunt’s grave, who is Saint Elizabeth The New Martyr.

Actually, there is still surplus of the Queen’s anointing oil made by Squire and Sons left in the same recycled Guerlain perfume bottle left on the shelf, but it was suspected that some of the oils may have deteriorated by now, so a new one has been made. But the box still retains the original notes and recipe with it.

The olive oil was blended with sesame, rose, Jasmine, cinnamon, orange blossom and benzoin as well as civet, musk, and ambergris.

The King’s oil has been blessed by the Orthodox patriarch at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is forbidden for their chrism to contain animal products, so the civet (from the anal glands of the civet bear), ambergris (whale vomit, essentially) and musk (from the musk deer have all been excluded this time. This omission probably sits very well with the King I would think.

The Fragrances

It’s hard to determine why Rose, Neroli Jasmine and Benzoin were chosen for the oil. Benzoin is a fixative that will make the scent last longer, but the rest seem more nebulous to grasp.

To me, this recipe seems better suited to a queen than a king, with Rose and Jasmine both being associated with the divine feminine, the queen of Heaven.

But all of these oils speak to affluence and opulence, but also grace. They are gentle souls that comfort and encourage rather than a real go-getter sense to them.

I rather like that queen Camilla will be anointed with this oil too. I think it is really rather beautiful.

I do recall having seen the late Queen speaking about her anointing and she said she had never smelt the oil since, but she remembered that it smelt very strong and really rather lovely.

The new version will be lighter I think, without the civet and musk, although I understand that ambergris has been replaced with amber essential oil. 

When to Watch for The Anointing

WWhen you understand the significance of the anointing, it’s easy to understand why the actual crowning comes after.

The King will be anointed in three places. On his palms, his breast and on the top of his head…which fascinatingly the church also refers to as “his crown” being anointed.

Four knights of the Order of the Garter will bring a huge golden canopy over him to shield the actual action of the anointing from view. Then, the Archbishop will remind us that when the old Testament King David was close to the end of his life, he ordered Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet to anoint his son Solomon king, which has continued in the sacred lineage ever since and has inspired countless musicians and writers ever since, but none more majestic, in my opinion than Handel’s Coronation piece. The moment of triumphant entry of the entry of God’s spirit never ceases to move me.

So you and I can imagine, the divine scent that brings the Holy Spirit in to guide him in his most unique office, “and all the people rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced….” all because of a couple of drops of The Anointing Oil.

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