Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mark's thoughts: The use of chrism in the Lutheran Service Book Rite of Holy Baptism

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has been in the gradual process of reacquiring the explanatory actions that have historically been present in the Rite of Holy Baptism.  Lutheran Worship included the reintroduction of the white baptismal gown and candle.  This trend has continued with Lutheran Service Book.  Although it is not included in the rubrics of Lutheran Service Book itself, the Lutheran Service Book Agenda includes in The Rite in Detail the following note: “9. While making the sign of the cross during the blessing after baptism, olive oil may be used to symbolize the sealing with the Holy Spirit for salvation (Eph. 1:13-14). This oil is applied with the thumb” (pg. 5). The use of chrism has become part of the practice at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marion, IL.  The following is an explanation that was provided to the congregation.  It draws upon descriptions of the significance of the chrism that have been more common in the Western Church:

                            Oil stock and the use of chrism in the Rite of Holy Baptism

In the Old Testament, individuals were anointed with olive oil in order to identify them as priests (Leviticus 8:12, 30) and kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:12-13) in Israel. The fact that kings were anointed gave rise to a title used to describe them – messiah - which in Hebrew is the word for “anointed one.” God promised that He would raise up a descendant of King David who would bring peace and salvation to God’s people.  This One would be the Messiah because He would be anointed with the Spirit of God (Isaiah 61:1; cf. Isaiah 11).

Jesus was shown to be the Christ (Greek for Messiah) when He was anointed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism in the Jordan River (Acts 10:38; cf. Luke 4:17-19).  In his letter that is filled with baptismal language, Peter wrote: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

In the Greco-Roman world the use of oil was associated with bathing in the same way that today we think of soap.  Given this cultural setting and the rich biblical background of anointing it is not surprising that very early, anointing with oil became part of the rite of Holy Baptism in many parts of the Church.  Tertullian, writing in 200 A.D. in North Africa provides the earliest evidence of this practice.

The use of chrism (fragrant olive oil) after baptism has been a universal practice of the Western Church for at least 1700 years.  It was included in Martin Luther’s 1523 Order of Holy Baptism and the Lutheran Service Book Agenda makes provision for its use.  The chrism is applied to the forehead in the sign of the cross immediately after baptism as the pastor says: “The almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life everlasting.”

Like the lighted candle and the white gown, the chrism is an explanatory part of the baptismal rite – it visibly illustrates a truth about Holy Baptism.  The primary background is the use of oil in the Old Testament in anointing kings and priests and 1 Peter 2:9’s statement that Christians are a royal priesthood.  The anointing with oil teaches that through Holy Baptism the individual has been made part of God’s royal priesthood.   The baptism of Jesus in which He was anointed with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38) also serves as the background since in Holy Baptism we are anointed with the Holy Spirit and so become Christians.

An excellent explanation of this occurs in the Brandenburg Church Order of 1540:
Because it is an ancient traditional ceremony to use chrism in baptism we wish to retain its use, but it is to be understood in the following way.  As the use of chrism is a traditional ceremony, so it has a particular significance.  In the Old Testament only kings and priests were commanded by God to be anointed, but we Christians are spiritually anointed by our Lord Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit to be a royal priesthood, and are therefore called Christians, that is, the anointed, after Christ. To show this the fathers used this external ceremony at baptism and anointed the Christians with chrism, to signify that they were anointed spiritual kings and priests by the Holy Spirit, as various Easter collects show.


  1. Thank you Mark . . . this is a timely help for me in a paper I am writing! I had forgotten that the LSB Agenda made such a reference to the anointing with oil.

    As I was doing research, I discovered that the earliest references to the anointing seem to place it prior to the water, and even seem to place more significance in it than in the water.

    Also in my research, I seem to recall that "chrism" is used in the Roman church technically to apply to oil which has been consecrated (normally by a bishop). I think it also normally had something fragrant added to it according to a particular recipe.

    I am glad to see you are incorporating this ancient tradition within the modern rite. I am suggesting its use also in the Rite of Confirmation.

  2. Brian, I am glad this proved helpful. I know that the earliest portions of the Syrian tradition place an anointing prior to baptism. As I recall, in the time after Nicea they assimilated to the practice elsewhere and added anointing after baptism.

  3. Mark,

    This is such a good post. One of hour later blog posts hyperlinked back to this and here I am. I wished I read this earlier.

    But I covered something similar in our study on the Augsburg Confession. Is in the part titles, "The sticky wicket of confirmation."

    Rich Futrell