At the end of the Chrism Mass each year in Holy Week, the Bishop solemnly consecrates the Holy Chrism – oil with a perfume added – to be used in the sacramental life of the Church of Maitland-Newcastle during the coming year. Most people will be familiar with the use of the Chrism during the celebration of baptism and confirmation. Many may be aware of its rarer use during the ordination of priests (their hands are anointed with Chrism) and bishops (their heads are anointed).
Because of the rarity of the event, however, many, if not most, people may be unaware that the rarest liturgical use of the Chrism is to be found in the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar, when these two inanimate objects are also anointed with Chrism. This is the only time in the liturgical life of the Church that the object of anointing is not a human being.
The significance of these liturgical anointings is not to be underestimated, for they are at the very heart of the solemn liturgical act that surrounds the dedication of a new (or substantially renovated) church building. Through the anointing with Chrism, “the altar becomes a symbol of Christ who, before all others, is and is called ‘The Anointed One’”, while “the anointing of the church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship” (ODCA, 16).
In the celebration of the dedication of a church and an altar, the Bishop stands before the as yet unused altar, and says,
May the Lord by his power
sanctify this altar and this house,
which by our ministry we anoint,
so that as visible signs
they may express the mystery of Christ and the Church. (ODCA, 64)
He then pours the Chrism on the centre and four corners of the altar and rubs the Chrism until it covers the entire top of the altar. At the same time, some of the concelebrating priests move through the church and anoint the walls in twelve places, the symbolism of which has clear scriptural overtones.
Through this liturgical action the altar and the church building become symbols of Christ and his Church. The building, newly dedicated and anointed, represents us, the People of God and the Body of Christ, gathered around the altar, which is Christ the Head. Gathered there we become a “holy people, made one by the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the temple of God built of living stones, where the Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth” (ODCA, 1).
Rev Andrew Doohan is Dean of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hamilton. St John’s Chapel, Maitland, will be dedicated during Mass on Sunday, 6 November, at 2.00pm. All are welcome!